Open source. Are you part of the community?

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Open source is a type of licensing agreement – not very exciting. The exciting bit is that it allows users to create and publish work that can be freely used, modified, integrated into larger projects or derived into new work based on the original by other users.

In an age of trade secrets and profit-driven professions, this is a unique platform that actively promotes a global exchange of innovation. It has been specifically designed to encourage contributions so that the software doesn’t stand still. The collective goal of this barrier-free community is the advancement of creative, scientific and technological tools and applications – which for many is more important than a price tag.

Who uses open source?

Although, it is most commonly used in the software industry, professionals adopt open source licenses in many industries including biotech, fashion, robotics and teaching. This article will focus solely on software applications.

What’s interesting is that more and more businesses are contributing their own source code to the community – Facebook, Airbnb, Cyprus are leading examples. According to a 2018 Tidelift Professional Open Source Survey, 92% of projects amongst European respondents contain open source libraries. Whilst on the surface this contradicts conventional commercial instinct, businesses gain a lot by giving away a little. Whilst the benefits are vast, we are going to focus on five:

  1. Competition:

Since the late 90’s and the advancement of the digital age, competition no longer resides simply between two rival companies. Businesses today also find themselves competing with open source software projects that are free, open to the public and constantly evolving.

Due to the current scale of open source contribution, even the giants in the tech industry are struggling to devote the resources or teams large enough to compete with their community counterparts.

Turning to the open source community enables businesses to outsource resource rich projects to a bottomless sea of innovative capabilities. This potentially reduces cost, pressure and speeds up the feedback loop considerably.

  1. Reputation:

In the same way the Big Bang Theory made traditional science nerds cool, the open source community can boost a business’ profile on the cool/not-cool spectrum.

Not only do businesses become more attractive to potential employees, by initiating an open source software project, or contributing to an existing one, they make their mark on an additional and power channel popular within IT circles. If done well, this has the potential to establish, maintain or improve a brand’s image, as well as attract new business.

  1. Advancement:

Helping to advance something as big as the technology industry isn’t something to turn your nose up at. In fact, businesses revel with the idea of having their name against a leading piece of software that has the potential to make history.

But history moves fast. And building software inhouse can be stifled by other business priorities, resource restrictions and other competitors beating you to the finish line.

Rather than building behind closed doors and waiting until your software it is perfect, opening your source code to the community in its earlier stages has two benefits:

  1. You can plant your flag earlier
  2. You invite an endless list of innovative capability to help advance your idea at a rate unlikely attainable behind closed doors

It also acts as an incentive for individuals to feel part of a project than extends far beyond the business they work for.

  1. Trust:

Fake news, data breaches, shady deals – all of these have encouraged people to lose trust in businesses. Including open source projects in company policy encourages business to be more transparent with its consumers. Whilst it is naive to believe a company will lay down all their cards, companies such as Facebook made 15,682 contributions in 2016. Automattic created WordPress as an open source project and currently powers 31% of the internet, and Netflix frequently open sources the tools they develop in-house.

Not only are they strengthening their brand, sharing is showing the world they have nothing to hide – which is a proven way to start winning back trust.

A great example of building this trust through transparency is the cryptocurrency space where many projects including Bitcoin allow you to browse through the project’s source. A very different approach to their corporate counterparts.

  1. Speed:

Many companies face the same problems. Sometimes companies are kind enough to share the solution. If a problem has been solved before and will provide business value in a fraction of the time and half the man power everybody wins.

Contributing to the community also gives you the capability to ask the projects contributors directly questions, ask for features or raise issues enabling you fast feedback which keeps your project moving

How does open source work? 

Contributors create a project and solve a problem. They realise that other people might benefit from this project to solve their problems. The project is shared on an open platform such as GitHub which can be downloaded and used by other users interested in the project.

If users wish to contribute, they can do this by downloading the project, creating a fork (which is an exact replica of a certain part of the pipeline) and editing the code until they are happy with the changes. Users can then request a pull request which notifies the authors that a suggested change is requested.

It is up to the author to approve the change, before deciding whether they want to include the changes. If they do, this usually becomes part of the next version, which is released at the author’s discretion.

The problem is, this could take some time. The author is under no obligation to release new versions or accept proposed changes. In fact, this is one of the limitations of the open source community. People will only give up as much information as they want to / their projects need. Authors are not there to solve specific problems, and often release software that focuses on their needs rather than trying to create something too generic.

This can be frustrating if an open source project only solves half your problem, however, the community can help bridge knowledge gaps. Users also have the option to download, build and run the project locally in the interim whilst waiting for the official new version – meaning they don’t need to wait for the software to be released with the changes they need.

How it is viable?

Whilst it doesn’t make economic sense on the surface, the community have found a way to make open source viable from a business and individual perspective. Some have capitalised on their projects, making basic versions available at no cost to the user, but adding a price tag to different versions or ‘add-ons’.

Other businesses or individuals actively contributing to the platform have benefited from angel investments, as well as new business after demonstrating successful projects.

It is also often a side project for businesses and individuals. Due to the legal freedom attributed to an open source platform, you’re able to modify the code of the product you’re using endlessly, for free, at no risk of breaching privacy policies or user agreements. This makes it the opportune ‘playground’ for those looking to get into the industry or develop new skills. According to LinkedIn:

“We believe that open sourcing projects makes our engineers better at what they do best. Engineers grow in their craft by having their work shared with the entire community.”

Risks:

With all open platforms, there is a risk of abuse. Open source communities are no different and have certainly experienced their fair share of malicious activity. However, it is the open source approach that significantly increases the reliability of the projects available to the public.

By establishing a community who believe in the future potential of the projects produced, you immediately have a security indicator in place. Many of them in fact. And with so many eyes looking at projects, malicious activity is quick to be spotted and remedied. This is because open source platforms embody an agile mentality, applied in a community wide approach. Rather than make one big change and focus on ensuring it is okay for the next six-months, contributors and authors are interested in making changes quickly, so things get fixed and evolved just as quick.

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ECS Digital love to find value for our clients and give it back to the wider community, which is why we make tools available on open source platforms such as GitHub and NPM.

We will also be hosting a hands-on session and demonstration of AyeSpy– a visual regression testing tool – at an upcoming DevOps Playground on the 29th of November. Come along to learn more about what the AyeSpy has to offer!

Matt LowryOpen source. Are you part of the community?

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