Open source turns 20 years old, looks to attract normal people

Who knew sharing would transform an industry?

Taking a stand

Perens said the open source community stands of the shoulders of Richard Stallman and his advocacy of free software. Stallman's concerns, he said, are as relevant today as they were decades ago.

And isn't that the truth: that while open source code is vital in just about everything we use – from phones and laptops to games consoles and smart home gadgets – the vast majority of us are still reliant on blobs of black-box closed source software that we can't easily inspect, change, or control.

"Richard Stallman said that a smartphone is a totalitarian's dream and he's absolutely right about that," said Perens. "The whole idea of free software has even more meaning now than when Richard started working on this."

To Perens, the acceptance of open source is more than he could have asked for.

"I think the penetration of open source over the past 20 years has been amazing," he said. "It's because the world was ready for it and we just did not know it. Open source allowed us to circumvent a lot of the problems that existed in having companies collaborate with each other."

Perens said he was excited about the way open source ideals are being adopted beyond the software industry, pointing at open hardware designs and the Fashion Freedom Initiative, through which dress designs are made available for anyone to reproduce.

"I think open source has promoted a much more mature understanding of intellectual property," said Perens. "The understanding of intellectual property that we had in companies used to be that you just held it close. If you licensed it to anyone, you did it with rather pernicious agreements, NDAs, and so on. And there was potential horror to befall you in allowing people to see you intellectual property. As a result, I think most companies did not utilize their own intellectual property efficiency. There were many cases where a company would have done better with sharing but no one could get their head around that."

The next 20 years are likely to be spent expanding the community beyond the free software adherents, savvy tech users, and sysadmins.

"The question is can we win a user community, and more than that, can we relate to normal people instead of computer geeks?" said Perens.

Toward that end, Perens said he sometimes asks open source and free software people to indulge in an exercise.


"I tell them, go stand in the Apple Store," he said. "You know, be polite. Don't look like you're weird. And just look at the people around you in the Apple Store. They're all happy and excited at how they're going to be enabled by the technology that Apple is selling them."

"Can we get to the point where people feel the same way about a device that's built with open source free software?" he asked. "We haven't built up, I think, the normal-user empathy that we need for that task yet. But it's not an impossible one."

That task, rather than requiring continuing technical innovation, demands empathy and emotional maturity, qualities, Perens explained, that not everyone in the open source community has.

Burke expressed optimism about the open source community because it is becoming more diverse. "In the early days," he said, "it was mostly white guys."

Efforts, he said, to involve women and other underrepresented groups and to make the style of interaction less confrontational have been paying off.

"That's really helped get more people in the communities and that's what open source is all about," he said. "It's about building community."


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