There is no shortage of support for open source technology. Senior members of Google Cloud recently made the case for why open source was key for an organisation’s data analytic strategy. Ericsson’s D-15 innovation lab called for open innovation to realise the potential of 5G. Configuration company, Chef, moved to a 100% open source approach in 2019, and are now encouraging others to do the same. And it seems like open source works. McKinsey’s 2020 report found that open source adoption had a strong impact on innovation, particularly for top-quartile companies. But why is open source so powerful?
What is Open Source?
Firstly, a quick introduction to open source. It’s a collaborative software (and to a lesser extent hardware) development approach that has become something of a philosophy in recent years. All aspects of the code and development process are publicly accessible for others to use and modify as they see fit.
All of us are using open source projects in our daily lives. Technologies such as Linux, Kubernetes and Node.js are quietly running in the background whenever you use streaming platforms, shop on Amazon or browse the internet.
What are the benefits?
Well, you might think open source sounds like a lovely idea, but in reality, why would you contribute to something that a competitor can use too?
Now, there’s a bit of a misconception around the cost of open source. When people say it’s ‘free’ they’re really talking about freedom to use the software as you see fit. Some developers charge for the software itself or for technical support. It’s also considered bad form to view open source as free labour, so companies (especially the larger ones) are expected to contribute. However, smaller companies can benefit from access to large-scale community developed software that they otherwise could not afford. This levels the playing field, allowing anyone to access advanced services (like data analytics and cloud technology) by utilising open source code.
Contributing to open source technology can help establish a company’s position as an industry leader. As well as the reputational benefits of being someone who contributes to the wider community, it allows the organisation to influence future development. For example, when Microsoft made their integrated development environment (Visual Studio Code) open source, it became the new standard for such platforms. Visual Studio Code easily integrates with other Microsoft products, so directing the developer community in this way was a real win for the company.
The open source community brings together programmers, hackers, academics, hobbyists and others from all over the world. Having fresh eyes and different perspectives on a software issue can result in true innovation, and when open source works well, developments can be rapid due to the number of bright minds working together. Google open sourced their AI framework, TensorFlow, in 2015 and it has since been downloaded forty million times. This huge community used TensorFlow for everything from breast cancer detection to predicting earthquakes.
Open source is a philosophy that people feel extremely passionate about. In a survey of 1200 developers, two of the top reasons for working on open source projects were enjoyment of learning and fulfilling a creative need. Given the importance developers place on open source, companies need to embrace the approach to attract and retain top talent. Many already do — almost half of surveyed developers said they were free to work on open source projects without permission.
Companies have been steadily adopting open source for years, and the benefits suggest this trend is only going to continue. The pandemic has put pressure on digital transformation, and open source promises surging innovation in record time. Open collaboration pushes technology further than ever, providing opportunities for everyone.