Open-source software—software that no one owns exclusively, so individual users can modify its coding as they see fit—is rapidly gaining fans in industries across the globe, but it’s also drawn some controversy. Authors Josh Lerner and Mark Schankerman teamed up to write The Comingled Code, a book that describes the open-source phenomenon and the ways in which it will, or will not, benefit the different types of businesses, organizations, and government agencies that use it. Rick Docksai, a staff editor for THE FUTURIST, conducted the following interview with Lerner.
THE FUTURIST: I'm interested to hear how would-be contributors to open-source projects typically find the open-source projects. The Web site Ohloh is one vast directory of projects that users can peruse, read about, and even contribute to if they choose. What other means exist?
Josh Lerner: I think there are a couple of ways that this happens, both formal and informal. Within the formal realm, there are Web sites. The most famous of them is Sourceforge, which has a few hundred thousand projects, everything from games to printer drivers to whatever. It's an amazing catalogue.
But I think the vast majority of people come to open-source software in a more informal kind of way. People start off trying to solve a particular problem they have. It could be you’re trying to figure out how to get your printer driver to print out from an open-source word processing program, or you're trying to figure out a solution to some other problem. Whatever the case may be, you're probably going to get a referral.
And in some cases, there is outside tinkering involved. Let's say you’re an economist and you want to write a non-linear regression and you’re giving them p- values rather than standard errors. Or let's say you’re running an analysis and you want to output it into a spreadsheet.
A lot of times people start with an open-source program and they say 'Hey, there is this addition that we could input that would it more effective. Let's go into the source code to tweak it and make it more effectively do what we want it to.’ It could involve adding a little feature or fixing a little bug, something like that. And they get drawn into it and become more substantial contributors. They want to make additions to existing open source software to meet their own needs.
Once they do this, then they get engaged and want to become more involved in looking for how they can be helpful in advancing the open source project. It's sort of like you have a kid in school and the kid is doing the science fair and the kid wants you to come in and volunteer with the science fair. And you get caught up and start to volunteer with the school more generally.
THE FUTURIST: Intellectual property theft is a danger to many industries, computer software among them. As more software companies make code available to volunteer contributors on open-source platforms, what level of heightened risk will they assume from unethical types who might steal the code and profit off it? What will they need to do to stay safe?
Josh Lerner: This is a complicated and interesting set of issues. One thing we’ve seen is many companies have opened up their source code and taken code they weren’t using and made it more available. They typically don’t just make code available to everybody on an unconditional basis. They do it under some kind of license.
There are two kinds of licenses. The more restrictive is the public license. This says that if I make source code available and you take it and modify it, you have to make it available to other people. Essentially it becomes viral. It’s not just the code that has to be public but any modifications to the code as well.
The other is called Berkeley Software Distribution, or BSD, license. And that essentially is much less restrictive. It says that if I make part of my code available I have to keep that code available in the public domain, but if you go and use it you don’t have to make your modifications available. All you have to do is acknowledge the fact that you’re using it. You don’t have to say how you’re modifying it or how you make those modifications available. Essentially, that’s a much less restrictive license. It’s not surprising that most of the corporate code that gets opened up is much more likely to be done under the more restrictive public license, which protects them from having somebody come and make a competing product without having it be publicly available.
THE FUTURIST: You also note that large firms and firms that are heavy exporters are statistically more likely than small firms that do little exporting to invest in open-source software development. Given that open-sourcing a software application can both expose it to more users and solicit those users' help in developing it into a better product, how might smaller firms with more local consumer-bases use it?
Josh Lerner: It’s easy to see why this would be something that big companies would have some sort of competitive advantage in. Bigger gives you more flexibility to take advantage of these things. But I think you do see examples of smaller firms getting involved in open source.
The smaller companies that are able to take advantage of open source have been the ones more willing to think strategically along these lines and say 'How can we look into open source as an investment? How can we make sure that we're going to get a return on it?
Say they’re doing a program that helps people keep track of their diet. They’ll say that if they’re going to do an open source project, best to make sure that it’s very closely related to the commercial product. It’s best to make sure lines of communications between those managing the open source project and those doing proprietary work. If we are operating under a restrictive license, they’ll take some of the ideas and use it in a commercial product so there is an emphasis on learning and knowledge growth between the open source side and the profit-making side. When you’re a smaller business you have to be much more targeted and much more focused, and make sure there’s going to be more of a return in much less time.
THE FUTURIST: You note that middle- and low-income countries are especially active in procuring open-source software programs. Given that businesses in many affluent countries have been off-shoring many of their operations to middle- and low-income countries for some years now, I'm wondering if open-source software will render computer programming jobs increasingly likely candidates for off-shoring (it would cost much less for tech-savvy contributors in India to develop an app than for a highly-paid tech professional in the home country to do it). What are your thoughts on this?
Josh Lerner: I think it’s something you’re certainly seeing in many developing countries, using open source as an explicit strategy. They’re targeting open source for precisely the reasons you’re identifying. If you talk to the Brazilian government, they'll say that this is the future and is really going to help them become a software hub. They’ve got modern young programmers who really know this stuff. They even have centers in the slums of Brazil where they say to kids 'learn how to operate this and make income from it.' They're seeking to position themselves competitively for the future.
We’ve seen in the recession in the last eighteen months in the United States more interest in open source, as well—not as a substitute for proprietary software, but as a complement to it. It's not like we're going to throw away all our commercial software. But some of the stuff, could we move it to open source in an era of shrinking budgets make our dollars go further.
THE FUTURIST: What potential does open-source software have for leveling the international playing field of IT capacity? Right now, the United States, Canada, and the countries of Western Europe are ahead of China, India, and southeast Asia in terms of IT infrastructure and access. But to what extent might a continuing expansion of open-source programming help the latter "developing" countries and regions catch up?
Josh Lerner: If you went to India you'd find policy makers having a lot of interest, as well people looking at this seeing people go from no phones to wireless and skipping landlines entirely. I think many policy makers in developing countries are seeing open source software have that kind of leapfrog capability, as well.
THE FUTURIST: A recent article in Tech News World (
http://www.technewsworld.com/story/71302.html?wlc=1290527413) said that since the government is straining to rein in budget deficits, government agencies are very receptive to open-source software and its minimal up-front costs. Consultant firm INPUT projects that government expenditures on open-source software will increase 8% a year and reach $430 million in 2014. But your book indicates that open-source software can cost more in maintenance and operation. Also, you urge governments to deal with open-source and proprietary software in a neutral fashion. What will governments actually save-or not save-if they up their investments in open-source as predicted?
Josh Lerner: I think there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to that. But I think it's wise to point out that there is a danger of being penny-wise and pound foolish. If you’re saving the up-front costs but taking out a huge bill in later costs necessary to upgrade the product in some cases it might be counterproductive. What’s needed is looking at it in a careful and dispassionate way to try and figure it out what works best in the individual case. In some cases, open source will win. In other cases, proprietary will.
THE FUTURIST: To what extent might their quest to cut costs compromise their ability to judge open-source and proprietary programs neutrally?
Josh Lerner: I have two observations on that, one of which is in a lot of cases whether you're open source or not, a lot of discussions have been terribly ideological in flavor—there are claims either that open source is really wonderful and a solution to all the world’s problems, and on the other side claims that open source is terrible and problematic. Neither is very productive there are certain circumstances where it will be more or less appropriate for different agencies or organizations. One of the concerns I have is I want more economics entered into the discussions.
Secondly, I would say the general tone of what open source is that its that the total costs of open source and proprietary you can easily see the temptation to say lets go with proprietary because we’ve always done it or open source because its cheaper. Objective costs analyses are important to help lead people to making the right decisions.
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