Open Source Everything

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne

Commercial interests in the form of large multi-national corporations strive to fulfill only the most profitable needs or wants. In many cases, the highest or easiest profit aims at wants that may not ultimately be in the interests of the targetted consumers (let alone the workers or the environment). For instance, many food companies focus on high fat, high sugar, high salt products that humans find tasty based on an evolutionary history in which these substances were difficult to find. For people in the developed world, however, having access to such foods is unhealthy. Furthermore, the way these foods are produced, transported and marketed involves unaccounted for costs to humanity. This is just one example. In general, corporations are not only motivated, but legally required to maximize profits, not meet actual human needs.

Furthermore, the economies of scale lead large companies to focus efforts on those wants that are best met by mass-produced goods and services. There are a huge range of very specific needs that much smaller groups or individuals have which do not provide suffficient inducement for large companies to provide.

Thus, the corporately created world both fails to meet many human needs and even when it does produce value, it tends to focus on wants rather than needs and do so in a way that has many undesirable side-effects.


In a variety of arenas, including publishing scholarly work, the development of educational materials, and the development of useful, robust software, an "open source" process has shown itself to be very effective. There are a variety of reasons why such a process is now timely. First, there are a large number of people globally with access to the Internet. This allows global communities with common interests to work together without the necessity of physical travel (which can be expensive in time and money). Second, there are worked examples of people from many fields volunteering their efforts to create value for the common good of their community. These examples serve, in turn, as models for other communities. Third, there are a critical mass of people with time and knowledge to add value to such collective efforts. Fourth, although it has been common in the past for those in power to use their power to keep their power, in modern times, a series of social and legal processes have been put in place to consolidate power into structures that are no longer effectively regulated by countervaling forces such as local governments or community pressure. The first three factors make the use of Open Source feasible and the last makes it manditory. In addition, Open Source has the capacity to personalize and customize value to much smaller groups than is feasible for large companies. Thus, by offering Open Source materials, people may collectively fulfull a greater proportion of human needs and wants. This is currently referred to as "the long tail." There are a very large number of people wanting a few common things and a very small number of people each wanting something different. Open Source is much better positioned to fulfill those different things wanted by only a relatively few.


Perhaps the most articulate introduction to the general concept of open source is the introduction to Eric von Hippel's (2005) Democratizing Innovation:

"When I say that innovation is being democratized, I mean that users of products and services -- both firms and individual consumers -- are increasingly able to innovate for themselves. User-centered innovation processes offer great advantages over the manufacturer-centric innovation development systems that have been the mainstay of commerce for hundres of years. Users that innovate can develop exactly what they want, rather than relying on manufacturers to act as their (often very imperfact) agents. Moreover, individual users do not have to develop everything they need on their own: they can benefit from innovations developed and freely shared by others. The trend toward democractization of innovation applies to information products such as software and also to physical products. As a quick illustration of the latter, consider the development of high-performance windsurfing techniques and equipment in Hawaii by an informal user group."

Probably the most notable and widespread success story of "open source" is the development of open source software. The "source code" of any computer program is the complete set of instructions that the computer follows to provide its functions. There are two competing philosophies that determine the rules regarding the distribution of software "source code."

The basic business orientation dictates that, above all, the source code should be kept private and that only people who are allowed to make changes to it -- either to add functionality or fix bugs -- are the people who are authorized by the company that owns it. Although there are several variants, the "free software" or "open source" model if more-or-less the opposite of the corporation model in nearly all respects. Anybody can obtain the source code without cost. Anybody can make changes to the source code. And anybody can distribute the code without restriction to anybody.

Besides its desirable price (nothing!), the open source model offers many advantages over the closed, corporate model. One is that many eyes can identify and fix many bugs. Software flaws such as bugs or security holes are more readily found and exposed. (This is the reason why fair voting advocates are generally in favor of open source voting software.) Another reason is that the open source model promotes innovation by allowing anybody to implement new functionality. Although many of the modifications may be unwanted, some may provide a foundation for desirable features. Although the open source approach has its own disadvantages (as do all approaches), it offers surprisingly stiff competition against deep-pocketed corporate behemoths. Linux, for example, is more robust, less buggy and on a faster release cycle than well-funded corporately engineered operating systems.

Although computer programmers have been at the forefront of this intellectual revolution, computer programs are certainly not the only complex artifacts that could be designed, built, maintained and improved through an open-source collective effort.

One obvious artifact to think about moving into open source development is the development of vaccines and other medicines. And in this arena, medicines that could reduce suffering caused by the worldwide HIV-AIDS epidemic come to mind readily. Of course, in so-called "primitive" societies, knowledge of how to find, prepare and use medicinal plants was a precious gift handed down from generation to generation.

With oil prices skyrocketing, open source automobile developers could work together on developing automobiles with super high mileage and other environmentally friendly features. Already (NY Times August 2005) hobbyists are modifying Priuses and other hybrid vehicles to pump up the mileage. (See
Related Patterns: "Open Source Characters", "Open Source Scholarly Publications" "The Commons" and "Appropriation of Technology"

Because corporations are driven primarily to maximize profits, they tend to focus efforts on the very popular and tend to ignore small niche interests. For example, the open source music movement now allows individuals to create music collaboratively and globally. Probably the most popular of these, adding 200 users per week is MacJams. (See links below for general home page and to see what an individual's entry looks like). Albums can be built and distributed on a one-off basis without the high up-front costs of using a recording studio.

Similar avenues exists for poetry, stories, photographs, video and artwork. Examples may be seen at, Xlibris, and publishamerica.


Use the mechanism of Open Source to meet needs that are not well-met by large institutions and corporations as well as areas where the social and environmental costs of market-driven competition outweighs the value provided.

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