Open Source: just a development tool, or something more?

What is open-source? You may, or may not have heard of it. If you work in IT chances are that you have definitely heard of it. Most people would probably associate the term with software and software development. Going a bit further, some might associate it with certain software projects, such as the Linux[1] kernel[2] [3], the Apache Webserver[4] [5], or web browsers such as Firefox[6] [7] and Chromium[8] [9] (the open-source version of Google’s Chrome browser)[10]. These projects are all considered open-source licensed.

Leaving all the legal speak of open-source as a licence model aside, it boils down to the idea that a piece of software released under such a licence should have its sources available for anyone to view, modify, and share. Of course there are a bunch of open-source licenses out there, and each one tries to aim for a certain use-case[11] [12] which the author of the software should peruse and, once satisfied, apply to his or her creation.

Modern code-sharing platforms such as GitHub[13] and Bitbucket[14] have created spaces where anyone can work on their software projects either on their own or with collaborators. Creating a piece of software “in the open” and then finding that other people think your work is useful and contribute to your creation is a fantastic experience (and of course can be a bit scary).

However, open-source goes much further than that. Open-source has become much more than a licensing and development model; it has become a mindset of sorts.

Opening up sources of “something” and showing “what’s under the hood”, being allowed to tinker with it, possibly contribute to it, and therefore inevitably learn something from it, is probably the most wonderful gift anyone can wish for. Being able to let your curiosity roam freely without fear of breaking any rules, agreements, or laws is liberating. It allows for creative thinking, experimenting, and open discourse, almost always resulting in an improvement of that “something”.

Sound familiar? That is probably because it is. There are many non-computing examples that show connotations of open-source and some certainly predate the term entirely. Science in academia is one example where experiments are replicated, modified, and discussed all the time. Car engines used to be simple enough so that taking them apart and reassembling them, therefore learning how they work, was not a big deal. Have you enjoyed a specific meal? You can probably get the recipe and modify it to your liking, share that modified recipe with someone, and they can do the same.

But these are all things that you probably find natural and obvious. So, what is the big deal? After all, this is nothing new.

Well, it is not new, but the circumstances have changed in a relatively short time, thanks to the Internet. For one, almost all past, present, and future knowledge is now, or will be, accessible at our fingertips.

However, another interesting factor is the way we interact with all this information. In the past before the Internet your options were rather limited, if you knew someone who was especially crafty at something you would pop by, have a look, and maybe that person would explain to you how something works. Or maybe you had to go off to the library to read about it. Doing this took some effort, now not so much. Now you can read all about it and probably find a ton of videos explaining every little step or give you the big picture, without leaving the comfort of your chair. You can collaborate easily with people from around the world without breaking a sweat (this is especially true for software engineering). This collaborative capability alone has accelerated the open-source movement to new heights. You will find people inspired by the works of other people, rapidly releasing products and ideas based on such inspirations.

For example, consumer-grade 3D printing and quadcopter drones started to take off in the DIY (Do It Yourself), Academic, and Hacker communities, which openly share knowledge. The result being that you can find designs and information anywhere, and especially on the Internet, on how to build your own and, if you wanted to, improve upon that design and contribute your ideas back. You will find people collaborating and sharing knowledge, from beginner to expert, from professional to hobbyist, from individual to community, and sometimes even company, for the sheer sake of sharing knowledge.

Open-source is much more now than a software licensing and development model. Thanks to the Internet it has become a mindset transcending beyond bits and bytes.

About the author

Danny Werb is a University Instructor within the section of Computing, Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity.

Footnotes

  1. Linux on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux.
  2. Linux kernel archive, https://www.kernel.org/.
  3. Linux kernel on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux_kernel.
  4. Apache Homepage, https://httpd.apache.org/.
  5. Apache Web Server on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/Apache_HTTP_Server.
  6. Firefox Homepage, https://mozilla.org/firefox.
  7. Firefox on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefox.
  8. Chromium Homepage, https://www.chromium.org/.
  9. Chromium Browser on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromium_%28web_browser%29.
  10. Google Chrome Homepage, https://www.google.com/chrome.
  11. A simple licence chooser, http://choosealicense.com/.
  12. Software Licenses Explained in Plain English, https://tldrlegal.com/.
  13. Github, https://github.com/.
  14. BitBucket https://bitbucket.org/.
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