Many years ago I started my working life as a trainee tech journalist. Every month the magazine that I worked on was accompanied by a CD-ROM containing dozens of (mostly useless) applications for readers to install on their PCs. As the new boy on the team I remember asking what it meant that some of the products were listed as ‘open source’. “It just means that we can put them on the disc without paying anyone” came the explanation.
I didn’t think about it much at the time, but years later I’ve come to realise that for many people ‘open source’ still just means ‘free’. No doubt that’s one of the most attractive things about open source software, but it’s only half the story. As well as the software being ‘free of charge’ the source code is freely available too, allowing anyone with the right skills to use it, customise it and improve it. Any useful developments can then be donated back to the source code for everyone to benefit from, making it a virtuous circle for those involved.
One of the best ways to illustrate the importance of open source software development is to consider the history of the internet itself. From the TCP/IP protocols, to the concept of hypertext, to the LAMP stack and (some) modern browsers, the internet as we know it relies on royalty-free technologies that have been made openly available over the years for everyone’s benefit. My guess is that the early pioneers of the web weren’t aiming to become millionaires (although some consequently did), rather they wanted to use their new discoveries to make people’s lives better. In the era of internet billionaires and an obsession with intellectual property, it’s important for everyone involved in web-related industries to occasionally remind ourselves that we’re all standing on the shoulders of these altruistic giants.
So yes, open source always means ‘free’, but it means so much more besides. It means thinking about the bigger picture rather than the quick buck. It means having the courage to let other people make your ideas better. It means developing re-usable solutions and not reinventing the wheel. All of this can only lead to better software for everyone.
But why should the principles of open source only apply to software development? If the principles work, then why couldn’t they be applied to other disciplines? When I look at the briefs that land on my desk, I see clients asking for solutions to the same types of problems again and again, which makes me think: “wouldn’t it be great if ‘open UX design’ was a thing, or ‘open business analysis’?” Organisations always think they are unique, but their requirements are often almost identical to others in the same sector.
I recently pitched to rebuild the website of a major county council, which had already done a superb job on the UX and design phase of the project, producing some very focused wireframes and prototypes. Since this great work was funded by public money, it feels right that the documentation could be made publicly available, and potentially save other local councils from spending tens of thousands of pounds to reach similar (probably worse) solutions.