Open source has become a buzzword especially in the tech and engineering sphere. From GitHub to bioinformatics open source is taking the world in a completely novel direction. In this article we will look at what opensource is – by examining some well-known examples – and where might it be taking us…
So, what really is open source? Open source is an idea that there are some things in life which can be made better if they are available to everyone for free, so that everyone can utilise and benefit, not just those with capital. This mainly applies to software. Open source software is uploaded to a site with all the source code shown, so that people can use the software, edit it and improve it for their particular uses. This encourages open collaboration between university research teams, individuals who want to do something ‘cool’ and businesses who are struggling to solve a particular problem. For something to be labelled as Open Source (according to opensource.org) the distribution of the software needs to comply with 10 essential pillars, which can be found here. The main points, however, are free redistribution, access to source code, allowing modification and allowing people to redistribute the software without paying a fee.
You may wonder why open source and free aren’t used interchangeably, and there is a very good reason for it. Anything open source is free in terms of monetary sense, however, in terms of software, being free should take the definition of the free in ‘free speech’ rather than ‘free food’. According to the free software foundation – who campaign to promote computer user freedom – software is something that should not be controlled by a handful of wealthy people, it should be free to distribute or redistribute, study the source code, edit it. They do not oppose charging people for buying a software, however, they do oppose creating a monopolistic environment where an individual is at the whims of a large multinational who have the ability to pull away the foundations a business may be standing on.
Open source software and free software do have many similarities which is why people have decided to combine the two together to form the label: free and open-source software (FOSS). This takes the principles from each and combines them allowing users the knowledge that the software they may be purchasing or using is under this label, they will have complete autonomy over what they can do with the software. Some famous examples of free and open source software are: VLC media player, Firefox, Drupal, Git and Linux. All of these programs are incredibly popular and also very useful. This shows something good doesn’t necessarily mean it will be expensive, however, there are countless examples where this is also true. Nearly every application will have a FOSS equivalent, whether it is any good compared to the original is something that you will need to investigate for yourself.
GitHub is something special. It runs on Git a software/application that allows one to manage code. Git itself is old, released in 2005, however, incredibly useful. When undertaking a project, there are many avenues to take, some may work, some may not. What Git does is it takes snapshots of a project and stores them as unique versions allowing you to roll back to a specific point if the branch you are working on ultimately fails. This is incredibly useful for individuals; however, Git really takes centre stage when collaborating. If a group are working together, each person can clone the entire repository then work on it as if it’s your own. You are then even able to pull in any other updates from your colleagues without breaking a sweat, which is why Git is seen as one of the best collaboration tools for software development.
Git itself runs in Linux, however, being open sourced people have created other ways to use it which is where GitHub comes in. GitHub is the most well-known Git interface and was founded in 2008. In October 2018 Microsoft purchased GitHub for $7.5 Billion, however, it has continued to operate independently of its parent company. One of the reasons behind this, was that Microsoft themselves saw the potential in an idea like GitHub and even had their own version (Codeplex), which shut down as Microsoft admitted that GitHub was the go-to for the developer community. GitHub enables developers, engineers and normal people to use Git effectively, providing a friendly user interface and a way to store your whole repository allowing a safe back-up in case something happens.
So why would I use GitHub? There are many reasons apart from those above. Firstly, it allows people to contribute to your open source projects really easily, thereby allowing you to extract potential of millions of people online. Furthermore, by using GitHub you allow yourself access to in depth documentation on many topics, thereby enabling you to potentially overcome issues that would have taken a lot longer. Another important point is showing off. Whether you are trying to attract new clients, or are looking for employment, GitHub can help. GitHub can also be seen as another version of LinkedIn, yet it actually shows what you have done. People can analyse your previous work and projects, see whether you were actually successful and whether you live up to the hype of your CV/promises. If you are running anything that will benefit from being open-source and you are not using GitHub, you really are missing a trick…
Content Management System (CMS)
Content Management Systems are used to manage the creation and modification of digital content. CMS applications frequently integrate the functions of website builder, maintainer and modifier, the most famous in this category being. Content management systems are essential to the running of the websites with 38.2% of all websites being run by WordPress. WordPress itself is open source, which is what the majority of CMSs are. Other examples of opensource CMSs include Joomla, Drupal and OpenCart who together with WordPress account for 42.6% of all websites built and equivalently hold a market share of 70.9% for CMSs. Estimates put only 40% of all websites not using a CMS emphasising its importance in todays world.
Of the top four CMSs, only one is not open source (Shopify). Shopify is a CMS which focusses on ecommerce and charges a fixed monthly rate for usage and servicing. This is a simple business model; however, many decide against tying themselves into a service and opt for open-source solutions. The main advantage of open source software is freedom. As you are able to see and edit the source code, one can mould their website in their exact vision which is extremely attractive to those trying to stand out from the crowd. Furthermore, open source is free, it allows businesses who do not want to shell out large capital to set up and wait until they have the ability to invest heavily in their websites.
There are downsides to not using a CMS dedicated to ecommerce, however, opensource solutions are on the rise. Examples include: PrestaShop, Magento and OpenCart all of which only have a half of the market share Shopify has emphasising that open-source ecommerce CMSs seem to be lagging behind their payed for counterparts. One of the problems with open source ecommerce is the fact it is generally unsuitable for beginners, meaning if you are not apt at coding, it is unlikely that you will be able to customise to the extent that you can on a payed for platform.
Apart from WordPress there are other CMSs which are used as mentioned above. Drupal is a CMS that has been around for nearly 20 years, and currently on the ninth iteration (Drupal 9). Originally founded in 2001, the founder decided to release the code for their website drop.org for others to use and extend and named the software Drupal. Drupal today is the fourth largest CMS with 1.5% of websites using Drupal. Drupal is famous for it being one of the longest standing open source projects, which is continually growing today with very large organisations worldwide trusting Drupal to be the software for their website. These include the Tesla, the Australian Government, NASA all of whom understand the capabilities of this particular CMS.
The Open-Source Movement
The Open-Source Movement has been around since just before the 21st century however, COVID-19 is currently threatening their existence. Many in the open source community rely on conferences and events to raise funds for the non-profit work they are doing (Drupal being a prime example). These have been cancelled this year leaving many smaller organisations at risk of collapse with limited funds.
The Open-Source movement has provided some of the world’s most important software, from Linux being the number one computing software for supercomputers to LibreOffice (the open source alternative to Microsoft Office). It is essential that this movement does not die out. Pre COVID-19 there was astounding evidence for the contrary. Open-source projects were becoming more and more commonplace, even the research group I am working in, is publishing all its code and designs to be open source.
One of the other ways to create value from open source projects is to offer services related to it. For example, Zoocha develop websites using Drupal, thereby allowing people to profit of their knowledge of Drupal. This is similar to how WordPress make money; they offer services on top of their free product allowing the people to put time and effort into building and maintaining the software to earn a wage. Another way is premium features, GitHub exploits the fact that in some projects you want specific people to only have access to specific files, allowing a more premium version to be offered which does all the features the free version does, but allows organisations to have different features that individuals will not need. A further method is certification. If your software/product is important enough people would want to be certified on it as a USP to offer their services to others. Examples include Drupal, where one can become a ‘Grand Master’ which adds value to their services as a Drupal developer. Open-Source is an outstanding movement which can and has caused benefit in this world. Other Industries apart from software are adopting which will be explored below.
Open Source away from tech
There are examples worldwide of open source projects being extremely successful, the prime example being in education. Firstly, Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopaedia with information on literally anything. Everyone knows Wikipedia is written by volunteers who want to share information about specific topics. However, there is a small issue with it. Wikipedia allows contributions to remain anonymous, thereby not incentivising people to submit their best, most accurate work. There are attributes of Wikipedia that are not open source though. As mentioned, the lack of accountability for the contributors, as well as the lack of a final entry. All Wikipedia documents can be edited thereby never having a final version. Another point is that there is no ending, no goal, therefore you are unable to gauge a sense of change, a sense of improvement with each iteration, another essential component to open source. However, those who run Wikipedia are content with their software, content with their work, and by all intents and purposes, they should be given how essential Wikipedia is to millions worldwide.
Another ‘open source’ education success stories is the Khan Academy. The Khan academy was set up by Salman Kahn after tutoring his family over Yahoo Doodle. After that he started uploading his videos to YouTube and soon after was reaching 10,000 views every month. A year later he gave up his job in a hedge fund to build Khan Academy and was going well until Bill Gates mentioned the service at a speech. This one endorsement allowed the Khan Academy to take off, the funding was immediately available to build the website to what it is today. Khan academy is free for everyone, allowing tutors students and parents to look at content and receive tutorials for most school subjects. Anyone can upload a video, making it another open-source educational program. At the heart of it is the idea that by uploading a video on partial differential equations, they are facilitating a student to be able to pass that difficult exam, allowing them to move on and achieve potential they may have never unlocked.
Away from education, another area where open source is gaining traction is pharmaceuticals. Some of the most devastating illnesses of our time still have no cure. Open Source Pharma is a mission to develop medicine to all at affordable pricing, putting the patients first. They are involved and fund many projects, including the Open Source Malaria. Anyone can help with the work they are doing, from data analysis to coding the model, with the program calling itself “Linux for Malaria Research”. Other areas of open source medicine include anti TB drug discovery along with open source mental health – which aims to bring resources built by volunteers to people who need it.
In music open source software is being used to help artists break through the glass ceiling. MuseScore is an example of an open source application which is being used to help those with the talent but not necessarily the capital to help compose music. In the drinks sector, Danish company Free Beer was the first brand of beer with an open source recipe, anyone can use the recipe all is asked is that they reference and credit the original creators.
Open source is getting bigger. More solutions, more people and more information means people are more likely to try an open source solution before parting with valuable capital. The question for your business is whether you could gain from using or even providing open source material, which could not only improve your profits, but add moral value to your business. Competition is always a good thing, however, in certain cases collaboration could result in better results for all parties by improving both your profits and your reach. So, research, share and collaborate to help you and your business take the next step and unlock online potential you never even realised.