Should you share your hard-earned business secrets or keep them all for yourself?
In debates with colleagues, we often find ourselves debating the pros and cons of open vs. closed-source software. Here’s why, as a humanitarian and a businessman, I’m a fan of the former.
Closed source software reminds me of Smaug, the fierce dragon in the Hobbit, intent on guarding his gold. Closed source software development companies keep their secrets close to the vest and do not publish their source code. Source code can be likened to the backbone of a business, and it’s understandable why some business owners and companies (looking at you, Microsoft) guard this treasure with their teeth.
The open source methodology, on the other hand, thrives on transparency. Organizations release their programs or software to the general public. Savvy developers with no association to the organization can then make changes or adaptations, improving on the original source code. I believe this concept and the motivation behind it leads to humanitarian benefits for society, without having to neglect the organization’s bottom line.
Open Source’s Early Start
The open source software movement has been responsible for a myriad of popular products including MYSQL, Linux, WordPress, Git, and Oro Inc., which have automated workflows and increased project efficiency. These companies released license-protected versions of their source code to the public. The public responded by creating communities of like-minded individuals that took on each concept, innovated, and moved it in a better direction.
Leveraging the Power of Crowds
“This is the beauty of open source – one organization creates, and then countless other organizations can use and innovate on top of it. The possibilities are endless,” says Dires Buytaert of Acquia (Source).
At its core, the open source movement thrives on technical transparency. For this reason, the open sourced methodology rivals more restrictive developmental methods which do not leverage the power of crowds, individual contributors, and developer teams traditionally left outside the decision-making circle.
However, a big challenge many organizations face is creating a community of able and willing contributors. I agree with Buytaert, but I also see the hesitation my closed-source-colleagues have with this new methodology. Skeptics pose valid questions such as “How can I trust a stranger with my source code?” and “How do I even get these collaborators in the first place?”
To understand this new train of thought, it helps to know more about the current climate in the software development sector.
Why is the methodology in vogue?
Open source systems have got a lot going for them. A Northbridge survey revealed that open source software (OSS) increased in 65 percent of companies surveyed in 2016, up from 60 percent in 2015 (Source). Vendors participate in OSS in order to gain a competitive advantage, reduce development costs and fix bugs or gain added functionality (Source), with 90 percent of respondents saying that OSS improves efficiency, interoperability, and innovation. Above all, these systems are usually less expensive than proprietary, closed-license software (Source).
OSS is based on altruistic principles
Businesses are now starting to do what scientists have been doing for ages – namely the open distribution of knowledge and learning. Open sourcing allows ideas that are implemented to be perpetuated, allowing the current generation to benefit from the discoveries of the past. Contrastingly, when a closed source piece of software becomes “retired” its system – and the thought process that went into creating it – dies with it.
When a program is free for all, methods and algorithms can be aggregated since many people with various viewpoints are looking at a given situation through multiple magnifying glasses. One need not reinvent the wheel. “All this altruism may be well and good,” you might say, “but is it beneficial for the bottom line?”
OSS can add to the bottom line, not subtract from it
More business owners who would have traditionally kept their software a secret are starting to realize that the best technology doesn’t live in a vacuum; instead, it comes with a rich ecosystem of integrations, add-ons, and extensions. These improvements occur quicker when outside players are invited to modify code or fork the platform in novel directions.
At Oro Inc., for example, we chose OSL 3.0 because it allows our customers to download and modify the software as they see fit. At the same time, our development team was able to “get outside their own heads” and see the changes our largest clients and contributors wanted. Keeping the software secret under lock and key works for some businesses, especially if their development team is headstrong about the vision ahead, and would not necessarily want competitors to know what is in the works. However, for other businesses that wish to actively create solutions to meet the needs of modern merchants, open source methodology allows the crowdsourcing of thoughts so crucial to actionable ideation.
Closed source organizations may be fearful of competitors that may try to take their product and build a copy-cat. Putting software up for grabs on the internet does make it more likely to be replicated, and this is a valid concern. However, most organizations have found that their intellectual property is protected under the MIT or GNU open source licenses. In this way, intellectual property is guarded, and the organization need not sacrifice the power of community contribution.
We believe our MIT open license agreement, combined with our forum and media library encourage participation that allows us to listen to the needs of our end users. As the proprietor, Oro Inc. receives benefits from our think tank, and as our customers, our community receives an unmatched level of customer service.
We created a sense of community through the content in these channels. We can proudly say that we know our audience and work to give them high value. We also keep them in the loop as to new product updates and important announcements. This element is crucial for organizations seeking to build trust among their user base.
Gaining a competitive edge with OSS
If you’re using open source software, how do you leverage the power of crowds? Well, like any UX developer worth her salt will tell you, finding the best improvements starts with listening to end users. For our team, that requires being receptive to the needs of our developers, system integrators and customers. The population we service does not want to start from scratch when creating custom business applications. Nor do they wish to struggle to manipulate and fork other applications to get it to do what they want.
Despite challenges coordinating work, the open source platform has yielded fruit for our organization. Defects are found quickly and are addressed in a timely manner as there are multiple people looking at the problem. We also tend to find that code is written more carefully as developers tend to work on projects they find themselves to be most enthusiastic about.
Lastly, the ability to work with intelligent developers, designers, and business leaders around the world has been a boom to our creativity.
We don’t need to sit atop the pile of gold, guarding it like a fire breathing dragon. You’ll find that if you share the wealth, good things will come.