The open source renaissance | Opensource.com

The open source renaissance

Posted 10 Mar 2010 by 

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By Brian Gentile, Jaspersoft CEO

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.

Download Free eBookIf 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.

Read more from Brian Gentile.

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4 Comments

SAL-e

Your position is based on well entrenched idea that patents provide the incentive ('the carrot') for innovation. This is simply false.
1. Patents exist only in the past 100 or so years, but most fundamental innovations have been made many years prior.
2. If you do research on human motivation you will find out that 'carrot and stick' type motivation works only on mechanical and repetitive tasks. There is wonderful presentation by Dan Pink called "Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation". It can be seen at: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_pink_on_motivation.html It's about 20min long.
Many people agree that software patents are bad or even illegal, but most people agree that Pharmaceutical patents are good, because the big R&D cost. This is false again. The prove of my statement could be found in any Big Pharmacy corporation's SEC filings. Only about 10% of the budget is spending on R&D cost. More then 50% is spending on marketing. This includes organizing exotic getaways for doctors to promote drugs. This is simply legal form of corruption. Even today most of the medical research is done in university centers and it is heavily subsidized by tax payers.
I would recommend you to learn about alternative view on patents. Excellent starting point would be the book "Against Intellectual Monopoly" by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine. You can buy it on Amazon or just search the web and you will find free electronic copy.
Best regards.

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RemyD
Open Source Evangelist

Since these technologies and tools, but most importantly the production process (think Ford Vehicle v.s Assembly Line) have not really existed prior, it's more like a birth than a rebirth. If I had to put a name to it, I'd refer to our current epoch on the path to the next technological singularity as The Information Enlightenment.

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Cynic
Community Member

Thanks for a thoughtful post about the open sourcing of business and its potential. We have very strong, well-run examples of closed-source thinking dominating most aspects of the computing world today, and it's interesting to consider what we could get if there was a significant increase in the pace of competition and innovation again. Hopefully, greater acceptance and use of the open source model would stimulate those effects, as you suggest. If you're right, we're in for some really exciting times!

@Remy,
Interesting point about Ford, but I'm not sure you're giving enough credit to those who came before us in computing. The disruptive but incredibly innovation-rich shift in computing from mainframes to mini-computers to micros (PC's) started on the PC side much like Linux is today, with hobbyists and heavily hackable, if primitive, machines and operating systems. The consolidation of that revolution into a relatively few hands came about as it became more popular and accepted, mostly by business -- the economies of scale needed to drive down prices became increasingly important and a huge competitive weapon.

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John Faucett

Speaking as a programmer and an ex-scientist, it's hard to see programming as a science. Certainly there are elements of programming that are "computer science," but the greatest share of a program is design.

That's not to say that design and science don't share elements, but the feel of being a programmer is much different than being a scientist. Programmers do not spend months or years trying to reach an understanding of a small part of the field, serving the goal of knowledge. Instead they spend minutes or hours finding a method to accomplish a small part of the program, serving the goals of efficiency, maintainability, satisfactory user experience, etc.

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Brian Gentile brings a successful 24-year track record to Jaspersoft, helping it to become the open source business intelligence market leader, measured by product downloads, production deployments of its software, number of registered community members, and of course commercial customers. Prior to Jaspersoft, Mr. Gentile was Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Informatica

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