What open source has changed

Open source is a concept that originated from world of software, although it has inspired and influenced many other domains. In this section, we will try to explain its various impacts.

Free and open source software

Let's start at the beginning. "Free" software was conceived by Richard Stallman in the 1980s. It is founded on the idea that it should be possible to make free use of computer programmes and, above all, to study and alter them. While some saw this as a utopic vision, it still marked the start of a veritable revolution, one that, 20 years later, would shake up the entire software economy and beyond. In the late 1990s, some preferred the alternative label of "open source software" to designate roughly the same thing, but emphasising the special qualities of these programmes – created collectively with relatively little centralisation and whose source code (the programme as written by its developer) is available and modifiable and can be used to create new programmes and derivatives – rather than their freedom of use.

In some respects, the open source movement is a humanistic one. It considers that software, like any scientific knowledge, is part of humanity's heritage, for the greater good, which we collectively enrich to the benefit of one and all.
Open source, or free software, also has a message that is particularly relevant today: software controls us, so it is vital for us to control software in turn. Ever broader segments of our lives are under the control of software applications. One software solution determines whether your car will brake, another whether your pacemaker will make your heart beat, and yet another might identify the candidate for whom you voted in the presidential elections. Software today does more than "serve" us; it controls us. This is not necessarily a bad thing, on condition however that we, in turn, control it, that we understand exactly what it does and that we are able to modify it as needed. This primary demand of free software is, now more than ever, an essential one.

Over the past 20 years, free and open source software, commonly referred to as FLOSS or FOSS, has been a source of incredible upheaval.

A multi-faceted revolution in information technologies

First, in terms of how programmes are created. In the 1990s, shortly after the birth of the worldwide web, it was a revelation: the most critical programmes on the web, the most commonly used programmes and the most complex programmes were all open source. Even Bill Gates suddenly became aware of the phenomenon, addressing a memo to his troops in 1998, in which he expressed his alarm at the transformation, at these new, equally strong and sometimes stronger, programmes, and at this new form of competition.

Open source created a major shift in the software economy by dropping prices to an incredible extent. Everything that constituted the base of an IT or web platform was, quite simply, available free of charge: operating systems, databases, server software, development tools and admin tools. Naturally, the total cost of ownership is never nil: hardware, support and human expertise are still needed to roll out and run all of the above. But for start-ups, the barrier to entrance was tremendously reduced, stimulating and accelerating the creation of innovative new companies. And for the companies using these programmes, the new lay of the land translated as gains in competitiveness.

Like all technological revolutions since the creation of the steam engine, open source engendered a form of creative destruction, as previously described by economist Joseph Schumpeter. By producing virtually zero-cost alternatives to formerly expensive software, open source eliminated actors that were no longer competitive, and reduced the profit margins of a number of others. But the new context of a software base shared as a common good enabled the emergence of thousands of new actors and innovative start-ups, some of which have already grown exponentially. More generally, it also facilitated the emergence of the web, its major players and thousands of smaller, but innovative and growing, actors.

Software development was profoundly affected as well. The modern approach to development involves assembling small and large components, many of them open source. Consequently, a key part of development is the selection and integration of the right components, with development actions focusing on customised sections accounting for the majority of the application's added value. This transformation of software development practices has yielded substantial gains in productivity.

Open source dominant on servers and in the cloud

Open source has had limited success on workstations (ordinary PCs). And yet, less visible and less known to the public, open source solutions have enjoyed a crushing victory on servers and in the cloud. While Windows dominates on individual workstations, the Linux operating system enjoys even greater domination across the largest web platforms' millions of servers (those of Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay, etc.), but also among smaller actors.

A recent study estimated Linux's market share on Amazon's Cloud at 90%. In many domains, open source is at the cutting edge, giving rise to the tools of tomorrow. This is true, for example, of big data, the handling of data at a whole new scale, where older database tools have reached their limits creating a need for new technologies. Nearly all of these new "NoSQL" databases use open source software.

Open innovation

Open source has also yielded a new approach to R&D. A great illustration of this is the Genivi open source project which, at the initiative of BMW and PSA, brought together the largest car and equipment manufacturers in a typical pooled R&D strategy, working collectively to build a software platform for their vehicles. To ensure the success of their strategic project, these major industrialists chose the open source model, not only as their base but also for development, distribution and governance. Obviously, the kernel of the Linux system itself is another example, to which dozens of companies contributed, making it unquestionably the best example of pooled R&D at a global scale. Such approaches, sometimes referred to as "open innovation", have proven the benefits of innovation when it is more open to the world, less hidden away behind closed doors, and when run on a networked basis.

Open art

Some critics present open source solutions as the enemy of intellectual property rights. Yet in fact the opposite is true: open source is defined by its user licences, which are themselves based on copyrights. The author, the rights holder, gives the user extended rights... and a few duties. This principle, by which the author is clearly identified and retains all rights, but authorises different uses and the redistribution of their work, has been extended to many different domains well beyond that of software.

Open source now exists in art too. Creative Commons licence have made it possible to publish all types of artwork with extended rights, particularly that of free re-publication, with or without the right to modify the original work. In this way, the Blender Foundation, which develops one of the best 3D animation programmes in the world – an open source programme – creates "open movies", animated films whose every source file (used to generate the film) are made available for use and modification. Like a novel whose ending can be rewritten.

Open hardware

Open source has also spread to hardware, under the label of "open hardware". In this case, it involves sharing the plans for whole circuits and equipment. One great example of open hardware is the Arduino project, a completely open source, programmable software and hardware microcontroller that can be adapted to any form of signal handling or process control.

It can be programmed to respond to signals from external sensors, processing them and commanding actions. It has grown richer each year since 2005 and more than 300,000 units have been manufactured. The distribution of open hardware is still rather modest today, but bear in mind that this was also the case of open source software at the beginning, being considered a "geek thing". But today these geek things are running the web's platforms.

The buzzword behind these projects and strategies is the "reappropriation” of technology. Technology is no longer the special domain of a few elite ensconced in Silicon Valley. We can control it, especially if we unite forces. This is the principle behind FabLabs. We are not just dumb consumers going into debt to buy the latest smartphone, whose battery we are not even allowed to change. With a few friends and a little help, and with open source plans and software, we can build extraordinary things in the comfort of our garages. Not quite the latest smartphone, but not so far off either. And 3D printers have opened up new frontiers in this respect. After taking control of software, it is now becoming possible to regain control over hardware. There are already dreams of being able to download the plans for a spare part for one's coffee maker under an open source licence and printing the part from home on a 3D printer. The next step will be to print the open source coffee maker itself! Utopic?

Perhaps, but the greatest revolution of open source is that it has shown that, sometimes, utopia wins.

Open medicine?

Open source systems are not just for Sunday DIYers. For example, they are now spreading into medical research. A marvellous example of the use of open source hardware and software in conjunction with a research process can be found in Raven. This open source surgical robot was developed by researchers and made available to research teams the world over in order to foster the advancement of computer assisted surgery software and technologies. Other researchers are working on a machine that is a combination scanner and radiotherapy machine, whose plans, source code and manufacturing instructions will all be open source. It is worthy of note that some of these open source medical projects have received the support of the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration), in the particular hope that open source software will enhance the quality of proprietary equipment, currently deemed to be insufficient.

Individual efforts united in a common goal

Open source has also shown that the efforts of a large number of people can be united and organised around a shared project. It was the precursor to what was later dubbed "crowdsourcing", projects that involve a large number of volunteer contributors, the iconic success story example being Wikipedia, but which also led to the creation of OpenStreetMap.

The credo is twofold: first, knowledge is a shared asset that must be accessible to everyone, with no economic barriers, and, second, citizens can manage this heritage themselves, under a decentralised organisation with open governance.

One of the variations on open source is the open data movement, in which public data as well as certain companies' data are made accessible. On the one hand, this is a democratic, socially-aware approach, but it also forms the base for many new economic models and initiatives that rely on those data.

Open source has united a number of basic civic struggles. Open source activists have a particular force behind them: they think about trends in society and are, at the same time, at the heart of new technologies and, in some instances, of the underlying economic machinery. For example, they understand the importance of truly open standards, whose specifications are freely accessible, whose governance is open and whose use is free of charge. They fight for Internet neutrality, that fundamental principle of non-discrimination of flows on the global network which enabled the emergence of a whole online industry that is in danger today. They try to explain to politicians why patents are not applicable in the world of software developments, where a simple copyright is more than sufficient. In the world of software, patents are counterproductive, discouraging innovation and used as a weapon wielded by an oligopoly of giants and mafia-like entities called "patent trolls". In the case of the former, they try to scare off their most innovative, small competitors. The latter seek to extort revenue from the innovations of others.

A flourishing industry

Open source is not separate from the economy; quite the contrary. The developers who build open source programmes are not always volunteers. Most of them are paid by companies that see a carefully assessed interest in participating in this work: they get access to high performance software for which they only have to finance a fraction of the R&D, they have complete control over those technologies that will later become standards, and they have a role to play in those projects' governance.

In France, the free software economy involves more than 300 SMEs and intermediate sized enterprises (ETIs) – software vendors and service providers – dedicated to free and open source software. Many of them have organised into regional cluster associations, each of these in turn being part of the CNLL (the French open source software council). Together they account for more than 3,000 employees and enjoy annual growth of nearly 30%. If we also include jobs linked to free software in general services companies, industry (particularly aeronautics) and telecommunications, the total turnover linked to open source is estimated at €2.5 billion, or 6% of the software and computer services market and accounts for more than 30,000 jobs, with annual growth of 30% [Source: Pierre Audoin Consultants].

We can see that there is a multitude of variations on open source solutions, with the impact of open source extending well beyond software and new technologies, to other industries, society as a whole, and to our conceptions of social responsibility and democracy. As a famous technology brand once said, think different...

Patrice Bertrand, Smile Founder and Managing Director