Whether we realise it or not, open source technology plays a key part in our daily lives. Broadly, the term refers to immaterial goods that are available to any person, at any time, and without (many) restrictions. Most commonly, this is used for software which is available for free as source code.
The rise of open source (and its sibling Free Software) was most significant once software vendors started to monetise closed code, contrary to the early, open approach of computing. With open source, everyone is able to use, examine and modify the software and share the outcome with others.
Nowadays open source goes far beyond the remit of computer science students and often sees joint development of software projects by many different entities and individuals. Many companies – even those we would usually deem competitors – contribute to open source projects, including Fujitsu, HPE, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Red Hat, and SUSE. Open source helps companies like these accomplish projects together in a safe, “open” space.
Undoubtedly, Linux is one of the most famous and substantial open source projects. From humble beginnings as the invention of student Linus Torvalds, it has become a core part of our day-to-day lives. It runs on any Android smartphone as well as operating systems in servers and PCs around the world.
Not only that, Linux is the base of many public and private clouds, including Amazon and Google. Many high-performance computing (HPC) clusters run on Linux, along with an impressive 99.6% of the world’s supercomputers. There’s no question that open source has had a huge impact on science, technology, and business.
Let’s take a minute to imagine what life would look like without open source technology. There would be no C, Perl, PHP, Python…
Let’s take a minute to imagine what life would look like without open source technology. There would be no C, Perl, PHP, Python programming languages, no BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) and no GNU project. We’d live in a world of Symbian or Windows phones, where every user would see the same (dull) interface. The market for PC operating systems would be almost wholly owned by Windows, with some traditional Unix vendors sharing the server market. In short – life would be much more boring.
And we would not just miss Android: Apple’s iOS (and macOS) are ultimately based on open source, too. Theirs is Darwin, which again builds on BSD, the Mach kernel and other open source projects. Our entire technology ecosystem would look completely different.
Slow (or no?) progress
Progress would be quite a bit slower in a world without open source. There likely would be little to no digital transformation and it would be more difficult to cooperate with other organisations. Common standards would need to be found between proprietary systems, where unsurprisingly each organisation would want to promote as many of their own “standards” as possible. This, in turn, would result in more hoops to jump through, longer lasting negotiations and unwanted compromises.
Without vendor-neutral standards, there would be a significant lack of innovation when it comes to fundamental technologies like the Cloud. Modern companies built on this technology, like Uber or Airbnb, would not exist as we know them today – if they existed at all. Even Windows and Apple developers, including Microsoft itself, heavily rely on open source components, standards, and tools. A world without open source would see significantly less innovation, and software would be more expensive and monolithic.
To take the idea of open standards and information sharing one step further, open source also plays a significant role in science, space exploration and drug development – areas where knowledge sharing is paramount. The medical profession makes great use of open source-based systems for computer tomography or MRIs, while supercomputers ensure the masses of data collected by scientists can be analysed.
However, it’s not just these complex use cases where open source has a key role to play. We come across open source technologies on a daily basis without even knowing it. Take transportation. Toyota is just one example of an organisation that will be using Automotive Grade Linux in its entertainment systems, sharing technology already used by many global airlines. Companies such as Intel and BMW have joined the GENIVI Alliance to help develop these systems further.
The natural next step
In an age of rapid digitisation and innovation, sharing the workload has never been so important. The beauty of open source is the breadth of the pool of participants along with the minimal requirements to take part. Internet access and curiosity is all anyone really needs to get involved – and this sense of diversity has made the community what it is today.
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Open source enables variety, rapid innovation and cost savings. Why would we want a world without it? Fortunately, it is highly unlikely that open source will disappear – and even if it did not exist yet, it is highly likely it would be invented. Enterprises will be able to benefit from significant levels of innovation for many years to come and effectively raise their market position thanks to Linux and others. But those who let the opportunity pass them by will inevitably fall behind.