Reproduced from a monthly publication with minor corrections
I often take for granted the perspective I have on a world that many people don’t know exists, despite it powering or assisting nearly every product that is made nowadays. As a software engineer, almost all of my work is done using products that volunteers develop in their free time and distribute for free. We call it Open Source, but it’s just free stuff. Free to use, free to distribute, free to modify, and even free to make money off of.
Occasionally I have to explain Open Source when it gets brought up in conversation and I am reminded of how alien the concept is in day-to-day life. The closest anyone can get to free nowadays is a service that is offered at no charge but drowns you in advertisements, solicitations for money, or upsells for additional services. We don’t often get the chance to take advantage of truly free products.
Open Source-style philosophies have existed for ages but the rise of the internet has allowed people to spread information to a wider audience more quickly. The benefits of free information are felt sooner, and the perceived loss of releasing the product of your own creativity for free is reduced. The cumulative effect is already visibly massive and very indicative of what every entrepreneur will tell you, it’s not the idea that matters, it’s the execution.
20 years ago, would you have bet that an encyclopedia owned and run by the largest and most respected software company in the world would shut its doors while a free encyclopedia that allows anyone to edit its content in their spare time dominates the market?
Microsoft Encarta ended in 2009 because it couldn’t compete with Wikipedia, one of the world’s most trafficked websites with nearly 4,000,000 content entries, 140,000 active volunteers, and 40+ translations. This is, of course, omitting the fact that the software that runs Wikipedia; MediaWiki, PHP, Apache, and Linux are all open source and free as well. Microsoft could now (and then) literally have built the exact same service for minimal cost. And so could you, today. Here are the instructions : http://bit.ly/your-own-wikipedia
Open source advocates don’t exist in a purely socialistic bubble which is one of the reasons it has such wide reach. You can release content in the public domain, meaning that anyone can do anything, or under a multitude of licenses that adhere most closely to your personal interests. One popular license is the Creative Commons, which can allow you to specify that you don’t want your work to be modified or used commercially (popular for artists and photographers). Other licenses might give up just about every right but require the user to simply reference the original author somewhere in the derivative work.
There currently exists open source schematics on how to build your own 3D printer (a “printer” that extrudes warm plastic and creates 3D objects). That, combined with open source models, might literally mean that you can open source everything.
And this is just what exists now.