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Open Source : A Way of Life

Open source is no longer just about software. It’s now a way of life. Be it movies, music, hardware, gadgets, education, news, governance and even beer; everything around us is swaying to the symphony of the open source mantra.

What started of as a revolution in software development, wherein the source code was bundled with software so as to enable modification and collaboration, has now evolved into a philosophy that pervades almost every aspect of our lives. From art to mass media, and from governance to even beer; free and open source culture is now a way of life. Where the traditional way of doing things was to closely guard the building blocks of a product, the new way is to open everything to the community, resulting in the obvious outcome – collaboration leading to a much better product. But do too many cooks spoil the broth? No they don’t. That axiom surely loses its potency when it comes to this emerging culture. The philosophy being applied to the non-software world has achieved tremendous success. It is quite clear that a few thousand heads are definitely better than one.

The origins

This new wave began sometime in the mid-80s when Richard Stallman quit his job at MIT and set up the Free Software Foundation. His belief was simple – create high quality software that is freely available to everybody. But what was wrong with corporations making software back then? Commercial companies constrict their software with patents and copyrights and keep the source code—the original program code, a closely guarded secret. Even the processes and approaches to doing things were locked away, and many developers found themselves stifled and shackled. Software thus being created was not of the best possible quality and definitely poorer than what could’ve been achieved though collaboration. There was no free flow of ideas, and if programmers had no way to learn from previously written code, the art of programming was likely to stagnate.

Folklore attributes the turning point in this revolution to one fateful day when Stallman wanted to modify the source code of a printer to make it perform a specific function, but was denied the right to do so. In an interview he says, “The issue with the printer was that I wanted to make it possible for the system to notify users when a job was printed, or if the printer was in trouble. That would have allowed people to go and collect their output only when it was complete, rather than having to guess.” To do so, Stallman needed the printer’s source code, which was denied on the grounds that it was proprietary information — making him “very angry”.

Eventually, the internet ushered in the era of collaboration, sharing, the free flow of information and the modular approach to working on projects. Stallman, however, later became a proponent of the free software movement, that believes in complete freedom, while the culture that has evolved over time is about cultural openness rather than strictly open source.

The culture of the masses

Perhaps Wikipedia is the quintessential open philosophy project. This form of open philosophy later became known as crowd sourcing. The collaboration success story is a massive endeavor driven by a legion of contributors who work for nothing more than a desire to disseminate accurate information. The web site has close to 10 million registered users, many of whom not only use it as a resource, but also contribute towards expanding it.

People are increasingly using the internet and contributing in their own little way to many such projects that run on the open source mantra. Under the provisions of the Creative Commons license, creators can put up their work on a platter for anyone to comment on, improve, modify and use, if they so wish. Flickr.com at last count had some 2 billion pictures (in November 2007) and has been growing steadily since then at the rate of about five million photos a day! The better works amongst them (that are released into the public domain) are finding their way into popular culture to be forever immortalized. The recent album cover of a quite well known indi band, Bon Iver, is an arresting picture of an object almost completely submerged under thick snow. The image didn’t come from one of those great artists of yesteryear who designed the cover art for albums like Dark Side of the Moon. Instead it came from the flickr posts of Lauren Hudgins, a nondescript English teacher living in Japan.

Open source journalism

Instances of the culture can be found even in mass media. Earlier, the power to publish was in the hands of a few. With platforms such as blogs coming into existence, that allow for push button publishing, citizen journalism is on the rise. Now, these may not necessarily be open source in the literal sense; they are however tools that facilitate cultural openness and freedom. Tools such as these have helped deliver news at some very critical times. The source of such news is completely open, i.e. it comes from the global collective. For instance, mainstream publications such as the New York Times picked up news trickling out of Iran via twitter. The news was modified, pieced together to join the dots and made into a meaningful picture of events, before being published – all this involves the fundamental tenets of open source – collaboration, modification, and freedom.

But for reasons that are somewhat justified, bloggers and citizen journalists are not highly regarded as far as news value is concerned. The concerns are mainly about accuracy of their sources. Yet, there are several benefits that greatly outweigh these flaws. For instance, open journalism will take up causes that news corporations will be extremely reluctant to tackle; vested interests and controversy always get in the way. But speaking of quality there are web sites that get their content from the open world but adhere to internationally accepted reporting standards. The content that they receive is vetted, edited and modified. Editorialized web sites like globalvoicesonline.org, backed by Harvard Law, is one such example. This phenomenon is also called crowd sourced journalism and nowpublic.com is regarded as the leader in this field. “NowPublic is a participatory news network which mobilizes an army of reporters to cover the events that define our world. In twelve short months, the company has become one of the fastest growing news organizations with thousands of reporters in over 140 countries”, says the award winning web site. Now it will take some time before such blog-based web sites become a mass culture since no single blog post will get as much coverage as, say, an article on the front page of a national daily. But it’s culture driven by the masses.

Several companies have taken to crowd sourcing their research & development. At the same time there are specialized crowd sourcing communities such as cambrianhouse.com and crowdspirit.com. The former is a think-tank for developing software products while the latter is involved in bringing to the market innovative real world electronics; all based on the collective intelligence of the crowd.

Other than idea generation, crowd sourcing has been used in rather interesting ways. Meritocracy.com, a research company, called for amateur portfolio managers to register and run a virtual fund with a million dollars. Eventually, it mirrored the stock positions and trades of the top hundred users on the site into a real world fund with real money. The fund has beaten the S&P 500 Index in 8 out of 11 quarters since inception. Wikipedia is an excellent example where crowd sourcing has resulted in creation – and no small feat at that. The sea of knowledge amassed by the crowd sourced power of Wikipedia, exceeds any other man made repository of information available to the public. Even social bookmarking like Digg or StumbleUpon is also a form of crowd sourcing that leads to discovery.

Open Music

One of the trends we’ve seen in music is of bands giving away music for free, directly from their web sites. The trend was started by bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails when they began releasing albums on the internet. The latest one to follow suit is Coldplay with the release of its latest album LeftRight LeftRight Left, which we gave out on last month’s DVD. Now this phenomenon of artists giving away music is certainly not open source in the strict sense, but rather a part of free culture, since the songs cannot be modified and distributed further. Although free, the approach is, strangely enough, paying off! Radiohead’s In Rainbows album, which was released digitally, went on to sell three million copies (digital and physical format sales). Of the roughly 30 per cent who did pay, said they’d paid around $5, on average. One of the more lavish spenders, Nigel Regan, donated £4.27, “I reckon this is a shade more than they would take from a label on a per unit sale. More to the point I wanted to reward the highly creative approach; next time I’d pay less but ultimately would buy more music”, he says on a blog. The trend is catching on in India, too. Last month some of the guys went for a rock concert featuring Mother Jane.

After a blitzkrieg performance, the frontman went on to tell the crowd to visit the band’s web site and download their music. “Pay us whatever you feel like, to support the band”, he said. This is so much in contrast to just a few years ago when bands were crying their lungs out about piracy and the menace of downloaders. The paradigm shift is perhaps a result of the open mentality. Another area of open source music, more in line with OSS, is the remix culture. Here people access music released under a creative commons (CC) license and modify it to create mashups made from original productions of music. Freesound.org is a collection of almost 20,000 such sound clips which may be remixed and used freely under the free CC license. The clips are only sounds, not songs. They may be those of natural origin such as birds or frogs croaking, or electronic origin like synthesized sound. A more musical project is ccMixter.org, where all kinds of tracks are available to either listen to or make new music from.

One of the most notable creations coming out of the remix culture – and one that will be close to our geek hearts – is Dark Side of Phobos. It’s an album consisting of 23 tracks that are rearrangements of tracks featured on the original DooM game, remixed by the Over Clocked Remix community. The original music was a mixture of rock music and the “creepy” brand of music made by creator Robert Prince, which we now know so well as “DooM style” music. The remixed album in its current form is free to distribute and is the result of the collaborative effort of 19 artists. We’ve included the album in the June issue DVD. Check it out.

Megatunes.com tries to straddle the line between free and commercial music. The web site is like a record label itself that signs artists from all over. The model is very simple: You can listen to a song for free by simply streaming it. If you want to keep the song, you pay a suggested price. Still, the suggested price is only indicative. You’re free to pay anything, higher or lower.

Open movies

The world of motion pictures has always been dominated by big studios, because let’s face it, to make blockbusters you need tons of moolah. Which small time amateur movie maker will have access to the resources that the big guys have? That is perhaps one of the reasons why an open source infusion was much needed in this domain as well. Take for example, Elephants Dream, an animated short film created entirely using open source software. Now, purists would have you believe that Elephants Dream is the one true open source movie, precisely because it was almost completely developed using open source software such as Blender, a 3D graphics suite. Well, it is surely an open movie, perhaps the first, but not for the reason cited. The more appropriate ground for it being open source has more to do with its collaborative element, modular approach towards workflow, and free release over the internet. The film reportedly brought together the talents of a team of artists from countries as diverse as Syria, Germany, Australia, Finland, and the Netherlands. In addition to the performances of the cast and creative efforts of the lead artists, Elephants Dream was a collaboration of hundreds of individuals across the world who contributed a variety of work such as programming additional functionality for Blender, creating textures used in some of the scenes, and providing international translations for the DVD release. The films main aim was to showcase the power of open source software, and in this case Blender, the film’s primary piece of software, got several features added to it during the film’s development. These included an integrated node-based compositor, hair and fur rendering, rewritten animation system and render pipeline, and many workflow tweaks and upgrades. Yet this is not the only open movie project, although it is the most famous

While Elephants Dream was a short film, Valkaama is a full feature film being developed in Finland. Content for the movie has already been shot and subsequently published on the project’s home page. Everyone is encouraged to contribute to the post-production process in order to complete the movie. The movie is near completion and the community is currently working on the music score. The community’s work flow is managed quite well by constantly updating a list of work to be done for the film. Currently, apart from the music score, there is some amount of compositing left according to the list. Any takers? Community members discuss the work and ways to approach it in the forums.

The Digital Tipping Point is another such collaborative project. It’s a documentary about open source. What better subject matter to be showcased via an open movie, right? The raw footage for the film consists of hours and hours of interviews. This presents a really good opportunity for wannabe editors to snip it into meaningful content. When the final product is released, it’s bound to be a tight film, thanks to so many heads involved in the post production process.

Open source cinema also involves the remixing culture that is pretty common in music, and is catching up in the images/pictures space. The idea is to create original clips of video and offer it to the community to remix and republish. Some of these mashups make for some interesting viewing. However, for this trend to catch on there are a few hurdles. Video editing is not everybody’s cup of tea and besides, meaningfully using canned clips requires quite a creative bent of mind. The hotspots for open cinema are opensourcecinema.org, freecinema.org, and straycinema.com. Be sure to watch “A remix Manifesto 2.0” on opensourcecinema.org – an open source documentary about copyright and remix culture. Created over a period of six years, the film features the collaborative remix work of hundreds of people.

Eat, sleep, DRINK open source

Right next to the open source kitchen sink (if ever there will be one), is the idea for open source beverages. Now you’ve made drinks at home, right? As children, come summer, we all remember making a cool batch of Rasna. But can you make Coke or Pepsi? Nope, you can’t. Perhaps the same gripe drove people to come up with the concept of open cola. A cola for which the recipe is openly available for anyone to modify or improve. But the project started off, not as a backlash, against big cola but as a promotional tool for FOSS. The idea was such a hit that the cola by itself sold more than 1,50,000 cans. The company backing the project became more famous as a cola company than as a company formed for the promotion of open source concepts.

Soon, open source tentacles extended further into the beverage kingdom and entangled themselves on to Free Beer. Before you get excited the ‘free’ here is like the one in Free Speech; not beer that you don’t have to pay for. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free beer, but here at least the recipe is free! The concept came about when a group of students from the IT University of Copenhagen decided to take licensing frameworks from the digital world and apply them to an analogue, real-world product. The recipe for Version 1 contained a South American stimulant that gives a caffeine hit to counter the drowsy effects of alcohol, or so the creators hope. The recipe is published under the Creative Commons license, which means that any brewing enthusiast can brew his or her own batch so long as the new recipe is published along with the beer. Similar projects came about later; one was a Doppelbock (dark type beer) backed by flying dog brewery (called the Open Source Beer Project), while another one was backed by Brewtopia. The Brewtopia project from Australia took the open source concept even further by letting customers own part of the company. They are even consulted on important decisions regarding their beer with a strange name – Blowfly.

Mod away

Perhaps the most interesting field touched by open source is hardware, since its so diametrically opposite to the culture’s software origins. For long, hardware manufacturers have had those little stickers across the seams of their products, exalting the warning “do not open, warranty void if seal broken”. It’s quite clear that they don’t want you to fiddle with their product or modify it in any way; even if you’re resourceful enough to modify it to make it better. Thus enters open source hardware – designed to be physically modified or reprogrammed to make it easy to install custom firmware and software to create entirely new products. The way this works is by the sharing of schematics, hardware design, PCB layout data and the free release of any other information that will help further development, such as the bill of materials. The idea behind this is the same as with software; opening up development will see innovation in never before seen ways.

The spectrum that open source hardware covers is huge. It includes small programmable gadgets, do-it-yourself kits, and a host of other modular devices. The field spans from machine tools to robotics to wind turbines. There is even open source chip-processor architecture for graphics cards and core logic design for CPU cores. Many of these projects have gone on to great success, many have not seen the light of day, but all have given the community surrounding them a great deal of learning.

Take the case of the Open Graphics Project (OGP), which aims to design architectures and standards for graphics cards which will be used in OS Operating Systems and eventually morph into full-featured and competitive end-user graphics cards. The first board prototype dubbed OGD1, is an FPGA chip. Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) can have their circuit pattern altered by programming, much like a Flash memory chip. Thus the circuit itself is firmware. The trouble is that such a board will be very expensive. But once the chips are out, developers will be able to try out their existing 3D acceleration designs. Once a stable enough design is created and tested, the cards can be mass manufactured.

The BUGlabs project is another interesting open source hardware platform. It can best be described as Lego for the serious geek. These are basically modular computing devices that can be programmed and attached to each other to make devices that perform specialized specific tasks. The main building block, or the central piece, comes with an ARM processor (530 MHz), memory (128 MB), a rechargeable battery and several ports where other bug devices can be attached. The device can then be modded to perform tasks by attaching modules; say a motion sensor module for some security purpose. The modules available from the company include GPS, camera, and screens for added functionality. The open source hardware project is enabling a new generation of engineers to tap their creativity and build any type of device they want, without having to solder, learn solid state electronics, or “go to China” as it says on its web site. Snap on gadget building – that’s the concept. Arduino is similar open-source physical computing platform with a development environment for writing software for the board. For more details visit www.arduino.cc.

OpenMoko Smartphone is a notable project aimed at building an open source smartphone that could rival the likes of the iPhone. The project has run into trouble recently thanks to the plummeting economy. The company backing the project had to hand over the entire project, including the brand name, to the developer community, but it will still provide limited support. The OpenMoko phone is meant for a niche audience comprised of technology enthusiasts. All information relating to the project such as schematics and CAD files have been released into the public arena under open licenses to be further modified and redistributed.

The CEO of OpenMoko, Mr. Sean Moss-Pultz has coined an interesting phrase for this phenomenon. He calls it “social electronics” – an approach that bridges the gap between the developer community and consumers. The project has been quite successful, with multiple widget kits and UI interfaces already developed to run on the OpenMoko hardware.

Open science

Traditionally, scientists have been known to be very secretive about their research until it is finalized and published. But things are slowly changing and many initiatives have sprung up that mirror the open source way of doing things. There are many databases set up that provide open access to the scientific community and students alike, to be able to access information for research. Why did the conservative scientific community that would earlier thrive on “eureka” breakthroughs decide to go open? Perhaps the telescoping nature of scientific advancement in today’s era made research stagnant and there was no other option than to pool resources. When it comes to publication of scientific research, a notable project is the Budapest Open Access Initiative (www.soros.org/openaccess). So what kind of material is available here? As the site explains “BOAI makes an explicit and fundamental distinction between writings that scientists and scholars do and do not wish to give away for free. BOAI applies only to the former. The objective is that readers should not have to pay access tolls to read them.-” And though this project facilitates free access, scientists still retain copyrights, and citing references pointing to sources is important when using any of it. Then there is lalisio.com, that calls itself a social knowledge network. It allows registered users to exchange “Grey Literature”, which includes access to each others papers, idea outlines and slides.

Open source kitchen sink

Open source has reached so many different facets of life that experiments with the concept are taking place in almost every field. There’s open source education, wherein a category of community developed study material has evolved called OSC (open source curriculum). OSC signifies any online instructional resource that can be used for free, is free to distribute and can be modified. The seminal work in this field dates back to 2003 with MIT starting the Open Courseware project. This provided students with open access to class syllabuses, and lecture notes amongst other resources. Another project, known as the Global Education and Learning Community, is busy bringing out online books and other curriculum material for students from kindergarten up to class 12. A similar project that has managed to create over 10,000 pages of curriculum is being used successfully by a school district in Alaska. The same benefits of open source collaboration, are realized here – content that is produced is of the highest quality, up to date (obsolescence is a major affliction for text books), and led by a community of dedicated educators. Through the free and open source philosophy, there has emerged what economists are beginning to call a “new segment of global public goods”. According to them, even simple comments we make on YouTube, forums and message boards, are part of the fabric of the global collective. Those comments together make a product; they enhance the original product and form an integral part of the sum total of human knowledge. In a world where there is growing distrust of corporate entities and restrictive IP rights, the ownership of knowledge and how we use it will define the next era of development. Who knows, open source may some day lead us to a Utopian society of abundance, freedom and liberty only envisaged by philosophers.