“Open Source as Social Phenomenon”

Thoughts January 2008

Jyrki Wahlstedt 

I have been involved, one way or another (cf. My Open Source History), with Open Source Software for several years now. It is time to for me think about some aspects of this phenomenon, like other have recently done ([1], [2]), and write them down to share them with my peers. The sources I referred to look at things with slightly different emphasis. The main emphasis of [1] seems to be technical, whereas [2] is more multifaceted ranging from IPR to history to meta-organization to diffusion into other creative areas.

Open Source Software is a phenomenon that has become more and more important in the last few years. What once was something “hackers” only did and were interested in, is now used, in addition to those “hackers”, by organizations, public and private, all over the world (as described in [2], pp. 143–).

What makes this phenomenon a social one? First, producing OSS requires a social group committed to get work done, as described in my previous article “Managing Changes in Collaborative Innovation Networks”. Second, this phenomenon affects our society a lot. The second part, the effects on society, is what I am going to concentrate here.

Open Source Software phenomenon is something that has given us wonderful software products, e.g. emacs, apache, PHP, Midgard (used now as the CMS at HUT, where I graduated from), all of which I use almost daily. Getting these software products costs the user nothing, they are available for free. Using these software products is not as obvious, however, as it would seem. Currently the dominant environment globally is not any Open Source system, but Microsoft's Windows that is not free. One reason for this is that in that environment several important software pieces work well together, while there are gross difficulties in using e.g. documents produced in one environment with software in another environment. Everything is easy in one environment, and that is as it should of course be! Open Source Software relies on standards that guarantee interoperability. The large problem here is that very few people seem to see the importance of standards in operating environments. Decisions in building the work environments should be based on standards more than on products. It is easy to buy products from one vendor and make everybody use these products, just too easy.

What would it mean, if standards and interoperability were required more? Some ideas: for private organizations it would mean more high-quality products to choose from, it would mean more productive personnel as the work environment could support the way individuals work, it would mean more knowledgeable employees, as the skills wouldn't be tied to single products, for IT organizations it would mean more requirements in produding software to fulfill the standards, because the software has to work in several environments. For public organizations many of these things hold as well, but education would have to change from product-based to support meta-level knowledge. One thing that could vanish almost completely, is the complaints about monopolies. As the competition would be hard and all the products would be interoperable, why would any organization hang itself into products of one vendor?

Open Source Software is something that can't operate for long without strict adherence to standards. Hence the phenomenon is eventually immensely effective.

Several things mentioned in this small article require further thought, elaboration and investigation. I hope I'll be able to get back to them soon.


[1] Fogel, Karl: Producing Open Source Software (http://producingoss.com/en/index.html)

[2] Muffatto, Moreno (2006) Open Source · A multidisciplinary Approach. Imperial College Press, London

© Jyrki Wahlstedt 2008