Open Source and Social Media: Community, Collaboration, Freedom

To most people, the term “open source” immediately conjures an image of two geeks sitting in a dark room (probably a basement) — curtains drawn, McDonald’s remains strewn across the desk, and 42 oz sodas within arms’ reach — coding away at their computers, listening to Linkin Park or a game soundtrack. People automatically associate it with endless lines of code, back-end technology, server rooms, computer science labs, and experimental (read: unsafe and buggy) technology.

In reality, open-source software provides stable solutions, created by people and for people and used by companies of all sizes. Use Firefox? That’s open-source software. Google Chrome? It too is based on an open-source code. Ever look up a term on Wikipedia? The site is completely built on user-generated code and content. “In fact,” says Allison Randal, Program Chair of OSCON, “chances are you’re using a lot more open-source software than you know: on your computer or powering you favorite websites.”

With the Open Source Convention (OSCON) set to take over San Jose tomorrow, we’ll provide a glimpse here of open source in layman’s terms and the potential intersection of open source and social media.

Author: Ravit Lichtenberg is the founder and chief strategist at Ustrategy.com — a boutique consultancy focusing on helping companies succeed. Ravit works with CEOs, marketing groups, and social media managers to craft customer-centric engagement strategies that result in higher customer value, stronger customer community, improved monetization, and higher profitability. Ravit authors a blog at www.ravitlichtenberg.com.

What Is Open Source?

“The ideas behind open source are about freedom,” continues Randal, “that people should have certain basic rights in the software that they use, the same as every other part of life. It’s about people’s rights to create things they’re passionate about.”

Mozilla‘s founders, who spawned Firefox, walked away from the ashes of Netscape with a desire to change the Web browsing experience. Drupal and Joomla are content management systems that enable unlimited options in website building and publishing. Remember how difficult it used to be to build your own website? Now building one is free, open to all, flexible, and extendable: anyone with a passion or idea can build for it, and numerous companies are taking Drupal and Joomla and building easy-to-use website templates that anyone can use, no programming needed. Don’t want to pay for Microsoft Office? You can use OpenOffice for free — it will serve most of your needs.

In essence, these projects, developers, and organizations address mature, business-critical issues in better, faster ways. This form of crowd-sourcing enables businesses to use solutions that would otherwise have required a lot more time and/or people to develop at a much higher total cost.

Open Source Is Evolving

You may have heard the phrase, “Open Source is free as in speech, not as in beer.” This phrase refers to the notion that while everyone can freely start and contribute to any project, the actual use of open source solutions may still come with a price tag — often for services and additional product layers that a company bundles with the open code. But for corporations that already spend millions of dollars just to keep the lights on, investing in open source increasingly makes better business sense. For the CIOs and CTOs of these companies, it’s not about the price tag of each solution but rather about the total cost of ownership over time, especially in a downturn economy.

In a study conducted by Gartner and reported by Matt Asay at CNET, CIOs reported they have increased investment in open-source software and decreased investment in proprietary software. CIOs reported that by investing in open source they were able to do the following:

  • Reduce costs by 87% (while meeting or exceeding expectations),
  • Improve quality by 92%,
  • Ease integration and customization by 86%,
  • Quicken pace of innovation by 82%,
  • Improve support by 84%,
  • Increase standards compliance by 91%,
  • Decrease time to market by 82%.

Michael Fauscette, Group Vice-President of Software Business Solutions at IDC, recently highlighted changes in the adoption of open source. IDC found that as recently as 2007, CIOs were reluctant to adopt social media software for fear of IP infringement and poor support: two mission-critical elements of any enterprise. By 2008, says Fauscette, CIOs reported that they preferred open-source software precisely because of the quality of support it comes with. And as for their fear of IP infringement, that was no longer at the top of the list because of standards and self-policing.

Open source doesn’t only serve IT companies, though. It is now being explored for government and health care data management and access. Open-source software, in other words, has moved from the basements of Linkin Park fans to the desks of the largest corporations in the US.

Sound familiar? The evolution of open source may sound a bit like the evolution of another web-related phenomenon, what has become known as Web 2.0 social media and social networking. Like open-source software, social media is about the basic human right to communicate, organize, and maintain control of one’s own experiences. And both address the needs of companies to do more at higher quality with less money. Both social media and open-source software involve communities and are fed by content: code in the case of open source, and media content in the case of social media.

But unlike open source, social media has thus far primarily been a consumer play and is only now being explored by enterprises. Living on the Web, social media is also hardware and distribution-channel agnostic: it does not require pre-installation and does not compete with pre-bundled proprietary products. Historically, open source, being hardware dependent, has had greater distribution challenges: unless the software came pre-loaded on your hardware, notes Fauscette, you would rarely seek out alternatives to replace what you already have. Without a channel for hardware, distribution was driven primarily by hard-core tech enthusiasts.

Seeds of Change

Companies that erected insurmountable barriers to protect their source code now realize that the cost of innovation and competition may be just too much compared to that of their competitors that use open-source software. Take Google’s Android, an iPhone competitor built on the open-source platform Linux. Android started off as closed-source software but very quickly became an open-source project. Developers can now build applications on top of Android’s platform and then use the code for their own Android-like products, just as developers use Firefox code to build their own browsers.

2008 saw another significant milestone: the establishment of the Symbian Foundation to oversee the development of the Symbian operating system as an open-source platform, licensed under the Eclipse Public License (EPL). The Foundation’s members include Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, NTT DoCoMo, Texas Instruments, Vodafone, Samsung, LG, and AT&T. With this development, a once highly protected closed-source cell-phone operating system has opened up.

Caleb Sima, Chief Technologist at Hewlett-Packard, calls this “a clear move on Nokia’s part to try to catch up to the competition by using open source and the community to help evolve its features to those of smartphones.” Companies are now realizing that open-source software is a competitive advantage.

What Open Source Means to Social Media

Open source is the natural platform for fast-evolving social media and social networking. Forget about having to scale the walled gardens of social networks or having to upload, download, and link together multiple applications. With open source, everything is seamless and transparent. Picture a huge festive dinner table, set with dozens of mouth-watering dishes for you and your guests to pick from. You can heap whatever you like on your plate or, better yet, just dab your bread into whatever dish your please, all while seeing what others are putting on their plate and seeing whether they’re using a fork or a spoon and hearing the conversation around the table.

But with all of these capabilities and openness, people will face new challenges on the Web. One big challenge will be to make the Web more personal and make it possible to simulate live interaction. One of the most promising companies to address this is Kaltura, maker of the only open-source online video management platform, with a free community platform, now used on over 35,000 websites and soon to be integrated into Wikipedia for user co-creation of rich media content. (Disclaimer: Kaltura is one of my client companies.)

“Extensions like Kaltura make the Web real,” says Fauscette. “Video is in fact one of the big things we’ll see. This is an opportunity space, and first-mover advantage will be big.” For Fauscette, trust is a major sticking point: with the proliferation of networks, friends, followers, and brands online, helping people figure out who and what to trust will be key to making the Web personal.

Whoever tries to control people’s relationships will lose. Whoever enables people to create and share experiences that are relevant to them across any website, with anyone, the way they want will win. And open source will create many more winners than losers.

More About Open Source

OSCON is celebrating its 10th year anniversary this coming week in a four-day conference in San Jose, California. In addition to the usual technical tracks, OSCON has added people and business tracks and many free events. You can register for a free pass to the expo hall (yes, free as in beer) and attend the “Birds of a Feather” un-conference, Ignite party, Hackathon, and much more (all free). Check out the list of events.

Great resources online include Open Source InitiativeOpen Government, Open Data Initiatives, SourceForge (where you can find a list of ongoing projects and downloads), Open Video Alliance, and the excellent short and sweet write-ups by open-source experts such as CNET’s Matt Asay.

Oh, and there’s always Wikipedia (where smiles are always open).

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