The Radical Potential of Open Source

Open source can be innocently defined as practices in production and development that promote access to the end product’s sources. However, this concept has radical and disruptive potential. This potential comes from freeing the access to the production process. If production in the modern sense was done in-house, based on a proprietary perspective, with the advent of customer relationship management, we have moved to co-production, still under the control of the firm. But with open sourcing we are moving to peer production, the opening of the process to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Open Source Software has become an interesting object of analysis for scholars interested in governance for the following reasons:

  1. It is conceptually challenging to understand how communities of code producers, service providers, and end users sustain open source software eco-systems (political theory of open source).
  2. It is interesting to see how activists and governments criticizing main stream politico-economic thinking have been utilizing open source as examples for alternative modes of social life (the Brazilian Model).
  3. It is interesting how main stream thinking is adapting the logic of open source software. Several Fortune 500 companies are building their business model around the open source method (the IBM Approach).It is interesting to analyze how entities threatened by the approach react to open source software (Microsoft).
  4. It is interesting to see how open source fights into specific governance requirements such as democratic accountability and transparency (transparency and open source).

When confronted with such a new phenomenon, we need to ask the critical questions of how it confronts our traditional understandings of production and how it can be utilized to create public value. In the new information economy the question of establishing standards moves to the center. Corporate and governmental actors are calling for open standards to ensure interoperability, data integrity, and competitive software markets. Open source is but one way of producing such open standards and assuring that they will remain open, by placing the intellectual property into the hands of a collectivity. But open source is more than open standards. It is radical insofar that it describes an alternative production process to market-based proprietary production: the process of peer production. Whenever we are confronted with a new way of providing for and managing our social lives, we should be skeptical. We remember well the last serious challenge to market based proprietary production: socialism. So we need to ask how viable open source is as a mode of production, how it impacts business models, and how it impacts public value creation.

The viability of the open source model depends on two factors. First, are there enough people interested in working to solve challenging problems in their free time because they want to learn from each other, need to solve a problem, or are ideologically inclined to peer production? Second, are there private companies and governmental actors that are interested in open source applications and an open source ecosystem for strategic reasons? The quick answer to both questions is yes – over X persons have contributed X hours to open source projects in the last 5 years and companies such as IBM, Sun, Red Hat, etc. have invested billions of dollars into open source projects. The debate about why people and companies contribute is still open, but it seems that learning, status, challenge, and strategic reasons (among other factors) seem to explain it.

So should governments actively support the development of open source, through regulation and through adapting their habits as buyers of software? There is no easy answer to that, and it depends on whether we generally believe that industrial policy can be successful. For governmental actors, creation of public value lies in creating robust software ecosystems that contribute to the economic health of their countries.

By opening the source of an end product to scrutiny, open source allows us access to how something is built, which is exciting to the tinkerers that want to understand, improve, and build on something. This allows anybody, anywhere, and anytime to learn about the newest technologies and to participate in cutting-edge peer production of software.

The ability to copy, modify, and redistribute the source code without paying royalties or fees changes the cost structure of software projects. Currently, licensing costs make up a substantial cost of any project, depending on the costs of service which are correlated to labor costs of a country. In Mexico, license costs make up a larger part of software projects than in the United States, so the traditional counter-argument that licensing costs are a negligible cost of a software project is not applicable here.

And how would a bias towards open source impact Mexico’s software industry? Roughly speaking, IT companies that earn their money from licensing fees, such as Microsoft, will lose revenues when the software ecosystem goes open source and software companies that earn their money from services, such as IBM, will gain (assuming that total costs of the projects will be similar).

By supporting open source a bigger proportion of software spending is kept in Mexico, communities of developers that have full access to technologies are fostered, software can be shared across governmental agencies, and access to the sources of mission-critical software for governments is assured.

Does this mean the government should go open source? This question cannot be answered on this abstract level because there are too many factors to consider, but what can be said is that this will be one of the most important political questions faced by the information society. Thus, it is of utmost importance for governmental actors in Mexico to be well-versed in the (global) politics of open sourc

About Philipp

Philipp Müller works in the IT industry and is academic dean of the SMBS. Author of "". Proud father of three amazing children. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

08. August 2006 by Philipp
Categories: Blog | 1 comment