On Open Systems


The technical and societal significance of open systems in general and the free software movement in particular crystallized in an interesting light for me the other day.

During a recent conversation with another techie, we discussed the rapid emergence of Big Data, large-scale data processing and analytical insights that were once completely out of reach.

Then she asked me,"Why do you think this is happening now?"

A Simple Question

That simple yet pregnant question was not something I had pondered before, and yet an answer came very quickly and naturally: the free and open-source movements, or rather the free and open-source mindset, made it possible.

One major benefit that free-speech OSS brought to society was that it started millions of conversations on what to do, how to do it, and more importantly how to do it better, faster, and more securely, without any of the shackles of commercial software development. If your open piece is better than mine, I'll just put it into my product and make it better for the rest of the world. Without this openness and instinct to share ideas publicly in order to get at a better, more thoroughly vetted idea (aka standard), this extraordinary accomplishment known as the internet, which all of us are still in the process of inventing on a daily basis, would simply never have happened.

Hardcore GNU folks often pooh-pooh the importance of the free-beer part of F/OSS, because of their higher ideal of freedom and openness. But I think that's misguided. Free-beer OSS made it possible for millions of people to learn software development because they didn't have to choose between paying the rent and paying for a software license for an operating system, database, programming language, or IDE. They also didn't have to pay a dime to learn those languages, because OSS extends beyond software to free downloadable books, tutorials and help manuals. Where would computing be today if it weren't for those computer scientists, software developers and other technologists for whom free-beer learning was the only option?

Combine those two general benefits and you get to a point where a huge number of people write massive amounts of high-quality software to handle interesting, complicated ideas that goad hardware manufacturers into ever-faster progress on ever-cheaper devices, and you get to a critical mass of mental energy and pervasive hardware availability (read: large stacks of cheap computers) that gives rise to a true step change in how much we can do, how many questions we can answer, and how quickly and cheaply all of this can be achieved.

Open and Shut

That's not a factual, falsifiable answer and I'm not claiming to hold any deep scientific understanding of the truth about the state of computing circa 2010. But whatever one's opinion on the matter, I'd still say freedom, openness and community-driven standards in software and hardware development played a big part in making the computing world better, and so the real world.

Another way to put it, with all due respect to a great businessman and technology visionary who's still the exemplar of secrecy par excellence and won't embrace the virtues of openness: if the human body hadn't been jailbroken, Jobs wouldn't have a new liver. A bad deal for everyone.

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