Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Open Source Renaissance

Note: This blog post also appears as a guest post on the blog at my alma mater, Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. But I also wanted to share it with readers here.

It occurred to me recently that the open source movement is really nothing less than a renaissance. Perhaps that sounds grandiose, but stay with me.

If you think about it, for a few hundred years, some of the most significant advancements by mankind have come from, and are maintained in, proprietary (closed source) methodologies.

Take, for example, U.S. patent and copyright protection laws and policies. They reinforce proprietary, “closed source” rights and policies. As a result of this system, many substantial U.S. companies have formed around breakthrough ideas, but incentives are in place for those companies to guard and protect their intellectual property, even if others outside the company could extend or advance it more rapidly.

Now, to be clear, patent and copyright protection is necessary because it properly encourages the origination of ideas through the notion of ownership. But, too few people consider the upside of allowing others to share in the use of their patents and copyrights, because they think such distribution will dilute their value - when, in fact, sharing can substantially enhance the value. Fundamentally, “open source” is about the sharing of ideas big and small and the modern renaissance represents newfound understanding that sharing creates new value.

In many areas of science, the sharing of ideas (even patents and copyrights) has long been commonplace. The world’s best and brightest physicists, astronomers, geologists, and medical researchers share their discoveries every day. Without that sharing, the advancement of their ideas would be limited to just what they themselves could conjure. By sharing their ideas through published papers, symposiums, and so on, they open up many possibilities for improvements and applications that the originator would have never considered. Of course, the internet has provided an incredible communication platform for all those who wish to collaborate freely and avidly and is, arguably, the foundation for this renaissance.

That’s why it’s ironic that one of the laggard scientific disciplines to embrace open source is computer science. For the past 40 years, for example, incentives have been strong for a company to originate an idea for great software, immediately file a patent and/or register to copyright it, and then guard it religiously. No one would have thought that exposing the inner-workings of a complex and valuable software system so that others might both understand and extend it would be beneficial. Today, however, there are countless examples where openness pays off in many ways. So, why has computer science and software lagged in the open source renaissance?

That computer science is an open source laggard is ironic because the barriers to entry in the software industry are relatively low, compared to other sciences. One might think that low entry barriers would reduce the risk to and promote the sharing of ideas. But, instead, software developers (and companies) have spent most of the last 40 years erecting other barriers, based on intellectual capital and copyright ownership - which is perplexing because it so limits the advancement of the software product. But, such behavior does fit within the historical understanding of business building (i.e., protecting land, labor and capital).

Another relative laggard area - and an interesting comparison - is pharmaceuticals and drug discovery. When I talk with colleagues about this barrier-irony phenomenon, this is the most common other science cited (i.e., another science discipline that has preferred not to share). But, in drug discovery the incentives not to share are substantial because the need to recover the enormous research costs through the ownership of blockbuster drugs is extremely high. In fact, because the barriers to enter the pharmaceuticals industry are quite high, one might think that would promote openness and the sharing of ideas, given that few others would genuinely be able to exploit them. But, once again, the drive to create a business using historically consistent methods has limited the pharmaceuticals industry to closed practices.

So, returning to computer science and software, maybe the reasons for not sharing are based on the complexity of collaboration? That is, it’s hard to figure out someone else’s software code, unless it’s been written with sharing fundamentally in mind. Or maybe there’s a sense that software is art, and I want to protect my creative work - more like poetry than DNA mapping.

Either way, the renaissance is coming for the software industry. Software will advance and solve new problems more quickly through openness and sharing. In this sense, computer science has much to learn from the other areas of science where open collaboration has been so successful for so long.

Fortunately, the world of software is agile and adept. According to research by Amit Deshpande and Dirk Riehle at SAP Research Labs, during the past five years the number of open source software projects and the number of lines of open source software code have increased exponentially. The principles that this new breed of open source software have forged are already leaving an indelible mark on the industry. Soon, its proponents believe, all software companies will embrace these fundamental open source principles: collaboration, transparency and participation. The course of this renaissance will be our guide.

I would be interested in your feedback on these ideas because the open source renaissance is well underway and I plan to be a model historian.

Brian Gentile

Chief Executive Officer



  1. Some radical thoughts...

    I think apart from the recent successes that the Open Source world has seen we still have some hurdles to cross as the traditional way of doing business still embraces the capitalistic mindset and a tendency to monopolize for maximum profits. Having had the opportunity and being part of the open source community, myself, I too strongly believe that sharing of idea will lead to extremely efficient products, especially in software, as they will evolve through the infusion of different thought processes and end result will be a collective idea which has been accepted by the masses and (hopefully) shall withstand the test of time.

    Having said that I feel that we can draw a parallel to socialism or communism (If we consider politics) with the Open Source Movement - in a way as - that too is a proponent of collectivism but as you can realize that even Soviet Union and most of the other countries that followed such an ideology couldn't sustain (There were other reason too for the downfall).
    In my opinion the basic problem I feel lies with the way we humans are. No two individuals are the same from an intellectual/physical point of view and that causes the major problem in terms of equality - through the process of natural selection one of them will succeed much more than the other and that could prove a deterrent to Open Source community as the natural instinct of an individual who has provided the most will expect returns in that proportion.

    In reality, what I feel is that the Open Source movement needs some re-thinking and a mechanism should be put in place which will regulate the mind sharing process in some way. A marriage of Open Source and Capitalism could be an ideal way forward I guess :-)

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