Thursday, September 11, 2008

Open source

I should preface this post by telling you all that my first ever client in the great world of technology PR was Red Hat. Red Hat (for those of you not in technology) is (arguably, I am sure) the world's most successful Open Source company. It's a competitor to Microsoft, but crucially while all the lines of code that make up Microsoft's Windows operating system are kept secret, making the software expensive to buy, Red Hat uses Linux - source code freely available on the internet. Because it's all publicly available (open source) programmers can take it, change it, improve it, build around it.... making the code better. While Microsoft is known for its unweildy lines of code, Linux is sleek and has much fewer bugs in it (at least by the time each full version is released). Because anyone can download the code, companies like Red Hat make their money by distributing it and supporting it (and when you are talking about business users those support contracts are worth millions - just like the Microsoft support contracts are).

Wow that explanation took longer than I intended.

Anyway, Red Hat was my first ever client and so I got bitten early by the philosophy of open source. Its a rather hippy theory - information and knowledge belong to the world. So companies like Microsoft with their proprietary, closed systems become *bad* while anything open source must be *good*.

In my line of work, when you are constantly meeting people who get a buzz from their technology (but also need to feed their children) it's easy to forget principles like this, but I was reminded this evening of my love for the philosophy when I re-watched an old favourite film of an old housemate of mine. Although nothing from Hollywood is ever very accurate, Antitrust is a great film. It tells the story of a Microsoft-a-like that spies on and kills programmers in their garage in order to meet its corporate targets for product development and get to market first.

If you watch it and want to know more, I can recommend Glyn Moody's book Rebel Code. I won't pretend it isn't a geeky book but I read it as a youthful 21 year old history graduate and loved it for the story before I understood the technology.

Open Source was a much hotter topic in the media six years ago. I worry that since then our interest has waned while we focus on other principles; environmentalist and the like. But I believe the world needs more people who are prepared to give their talents to the world, and wanted to make a little noise in my own small way to remind everyone of the great efforts of those who open source.


MEF said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wimble said...

Actually, there's a more important point behind Open Source, which is "many eyes makes all bugs shallow." If a company produces a proprietary method for doing something (and this doesn't have to be software), and refuses to tell you how it does it, then there's no way to know whether it's doing it in a good way, or a bad way. The only time you find out is when the method breaks. In software, this is a bug. In government circles, it's called "the courier lost the CD".

If you open up your procedures, then spectators have a chance to spot the potential problems before they happen, and suggest revisions to the process (or to chose a completely different process). Again, it's an important principle in cryptography, science in general, and US electronic voting machines (which infamously are closed boxes).

Emily Wearmouth said...

Wimble I wholeheartedly agree that that is a really important point but disagree that it is a more important point, as my post was intended more to highlight the philosophical greatness of Open Source.

From a user view you are absolutely right though, and it's one of the main reasons that Linux does rather well within governments (particularly in Germany if I recall).

I started this post and then remembered my parents, grandad, book club etc read this post so sort of backed away from my techie elements a little.

Good point you make though sir!

glyn moody said...

Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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