During the period of October 23-24, 2008 I had the opportunity to attend Seneca’s annual Free Software and Open Source Symposium, a place for students, professors, employees and companies to come together and discuss everything relating to open source. The event discussed all aspects of open source, from the web to mobile applications to operating systems to the law/ethics surrounding open source. I came away from the event with a heightened understanding of what the term “open source” stands for and what it can do for me. This paper will discuss some of the talks that interested me the most as well as my personal views on open source and how they’ve changed since FSOSS.
“Open Source Design” presented by Brendan Sera-Shriar and Geoff Palin
The first talk I attended was a discussion about Open Source Design. When I saw the topic of this presentation I assumed it was about code design from an open source perspective. I was surprised to find that it was actually about the merging of open source programmers and artists (designers).
Brandon and Geoff presented an idea that I really identified with, that programming and designing should go hand-in-hand. They pointed out that if one has a website that can do a lot but doesn’t work well, that website won’t be successful; likewise, if the site looks amazing but doesn’t have functionality it also won’t be successful. Thus, the two arts should be working together, or at the very least programmers should have design experience and designers should have programming experience. They talked about how digital artists are starting to move towards the open source community.
They also mentioned an organization that they’ve started called PHUG. This organization’s purpose is to bridge the gap between developers and designers and promote the open source culture. Brandon made an interesting comment: that open source culture should involve interacting offline as well as offline. It’s clear that Brandon and Geoff truly believe in uniting people through open source and creating communities that can help each other grow in ways that the secluded could never imagine.
As a person who’s always taken an interest in web design, this philosophy resonated with me. Personally I’ve always been able to code a website, but making it look good has always been a problem of mine, so to hear these two talk about how artists and designers can come together and learn about each other is something I found to be incredibly necessary.
Another thing that Brandon and Geoff talked about was open source tools that are available to designers. I had always thought that retail software such as Photoshop, Maya and 3DSMax were necessary to create high-quality imagery and videos. However, they introduced software such as gimp (Photoshop replacement) and blender3d (Maya/3DSMax replacement) and OSFlash (open source Flash). These were applications made in the open source community, and their quality was on par with retail applications. In fact, blender3d and gimp have been used by Hollywood studios for movies such as Spiderman 2. It was amazing to me that such high quality software could come out of the open source community. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought open source could produce quality software, but something on the level of 3DSMax was something I didn’t expect.
Geoff and Brandon are both part of BackspaceStudios.com, a company that promotes the use of open source tools. This in my opinion is a necessity because software like blender and gimp needs more exposure.
“Komodo: Making Proprietary Products Open Source” presented by Shane Caraveo
Firstly, Shane discussed some of the problems that faced Komodo prior to going open source: Financial performance was low, the market was highly fractured, competition was plentiful and their marketing strategy was failing.
ActiveState’s solution involved switching to client/server web development, a harder marketing campaign and to turn Komodo into an open source platform called OpenKomodo. The company hoped that going open source would result in exposure to new markets, an increase in user base, to gain open source contributions, increase commercial sales and explore new business models.
Naturally there were fears with this decision. Would providing a free version of Komodo collapse their sales even further? Would they be able to build a community from scratch? Would they be able to leverage the open source community? Would anyone even be interested in Komodo?
The result of going open source? The number of downloads of Komodo tripled, mostly from people downloading the Komodo IDE and Komodo Edit (the name of OpenKomodo) and usage quadrupled. Komodo now has somewhere between 20-30,000 active users, their community is growing and localizing Komodo in different languages and even creating extensions.
My initial thoughts of turning an application to open source were similar to ActiveState’s fears. I thought to myself “Why would any company go from charging for their software to putting it out for free? Don’t most companies do the opposite so they can make money?” When I thought about it during the presentation it made sense. By making the application free for download, the fears of the user (“If I pay for this software that I don’t know about, am I going to get what I want?”) go right out the window. Now they’re able to try out the software with no consequence, and if they like the software they can perhaps pay for the enterprise version of Komodo which comes with extra features.
Of course the greatest thing about open source is the communities it builds. When people are able to try out a product and they like it, they start to talk about it. This was another advantage that ActiveState was able to capitalize on. Now, there is an active community using, modifying and most importantly talking about Komodo. This has several benefits. The first is that so many people are now invested in making Komodo a better product. Instead of the responsibility being in the hands of just ActiveState, now it’s in the hands of thousands of developers who wish to make the software as great as they can.
Komodo is now evolving at a rate that never would have been possible with ActiveState’s previous business model. New functionality is being added, old functionality is being improved and software patches and bux fixes are happening much more frequently.
Shane and ActiveState are living proof that the open source philosophy can help a product rather than harm it. Instead of people taking advantage of free software and tossing it to the wayside, the free software has brought people together to learn about it, use it and improve it.
I think the views of Brendan, Geoff and Shane are similar in many ways. What they all would agree on is that the power of open source comes from community. Brendan and Geoff wish to create communities to bridge gaps and unite people to create better software, while Shane hopes that creating communities increases usage of, modification of and dedication to his product. If either of them didn’t have a community that supported their product or their philosophies, how far would they go? How far COULD they go? Both are successful or becoming successful because more and more people are being exposed to their product or their ideals and have started sharing with each other to make that product better or that philosophy more popular.
Both would also agree that that open source is powerful because it promotes freedom and innovation. Brandon and Geoff have the idea that uniting programmers and designers can create a whole new world of opportunity and innovate in ways that weren’t possible with the two professions being separate from one another. Shane sees a way to take Komodo and take it in whatever direction you want to or to modify it in ways that no one ever thought of.
While they see community as the means to a different end, both are different examples of what open source is all about. Open source is about uniting the world through software development to create better software. Open source is about having the opportunity and freedom to create and expose your product to others. Open source is all that and more.
My Views on Open Source
During the first couple of years I spent at Seneca, I had a distorted, black and white view of open source and what it was about. Originally, I thought of it as simply creating simple, free software applications and nothing more. How little I knew. Being in this course has taught me that open source isn’t just free software, it’s free software surrounded by a philosophy based on the freedom to create, change and share and on the foundation of community and unity. It’s about pushing the boundaries of software development to inspire innovation and promote growth.
I once heard of software development as being like a box, which I thought rung true. You have a certain amount of space within that box and you can do a lot of things inside the box depending on the application, but that box will never get bigger. With open source, you have the ability to change the size of the box to whatever it is you need. The great thing about that is it gives people the ability and the freedom to express their ideas through changes to that software.
The ability to innovate is one of the great advantages of open source. With a close source application, you may have ideas about how to make the software better, but you’re unable to do it. With an open source application, go ahead and download the source code of that application, and make the change you want to make. There are many talented developers in the world who don’t work for a major company. The open source community provides those developers with a canvas to paint to their heart’s content.
Seeing the presentations I saw confirmed to me the importance of community. One common aspect of every presentation was that it asked me and others to get involved. Without the support of others, the products and ideas are nothing. A community allows you to share your ideas, engage in discussion and work together to improve software that you are passionate about. I think about it as being a fan of a sports team. You can watch the team on TV and cheer for them, but if there aren’t other fans to cheer with or to discuss the team with, how long are you going to stay a fan? A community not only provides a place for people to take knowledge and use it for their own needs, but it also gives people a place and a reason to give back to the community. This give and take relationship is so common in open source communities and it’s the reason why open source software is always evolving.
I learned from Shane’s presentation about another benefit of open source. One of the benefits of open source is that it eliminates the barriers between the user and the software. One of these barriers is money. By making a feature-reduced version of Komodo a free download, the software became much more accessible to those who were skeptical or afraid to take the risk, and because of that Shane saw increased usage, and a community start to form.
Attending FSOSS not only confirmed the existing opinions I had about open source, but it also helped instill new opinions about what open source is and what it means. I definitely recommend attending FSOSS in the future to learn about open source from many different perspectives. It gives one information about the open source philosophy and it shows how one can contribute to the open source movement.