What is Open Source?

In 1999, Rob McEwen, the CEO of a struggling Canadian gold-mining company named Goldcorp, Inc., did something totally unexpected and radical at the time, especially within his industry.

In an effort to locate more gold for extraction, he opened his company secrets to the world — all the geological data Goldcorp had compiled for decades — with an offer of $575,000 in prize money to the people who used this data to work out the best prospecting plans.

As it turned out, a Finnish computer programmer named Linus Torvalds (pictured right) was a driving influence behind this radical idea.

A generation ago, before the Worldwide Web had been invented, the Helsinki programmer created a simple version of the UNIX operating system, dubbed it Linux, and shared it with other programmers on a computer bulletin board.

Anyone was free to use Linux and even to improve it, providing they shared these improvements with everyone else.  An informal structure emerged to manage ongoing improvements of this software.  In time, though, something even more significant occurred:  because it was free, reliable and convenient, Linux became the basis for many Web hosting services and ultimately, databases.

In time, it also became embedded in the technologies and products of many highly profitable companies.

Torvalds was scarcely aware of it at the time, but his creative inspiration formed much of the basis for one of the most far-reaching innovations in recent decades, and a new mode of economic production: open source.

Even so, while Torvalds was a major influence, the single biggest factor has been the advent of Web 2.0.

As Donald Tapscott and Anthony Williams contend in their bestselling book “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything,” the rapid acceleration of scientific and technological progress following the development of Web 2.0 has demonstrated  to growing numbers of companies and other entities that  holding resources and assets close to their chests is often self-defeating.

Indeed, as McEwen discovered more than a decade ago, companies are increasingly finding it more profitable to share information in hopes of enlisting the diverse expertise available through virtual networking.

One of the most noteworthy and potentially far-reaching examples of the new open-source approach is the Human Genome Project, an international research effort through which the sequence of human DNA will be stored in databases available to anyone on the Internet — an effort that is expected to benefit medical science in ways we can scarcely imagine.

 

Author: Jim Langcuster

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *