Monday, December 29, 2014

The (Unfortunate) Reality Of Open Source

I've been thinking a lot about open source software recently. It's amazing how much of our lives are run by open source software, how little people are aware of, and the downstream affect it has on our lives. Are you an Android, iPhone, or Kindle user? Do you use Gmail or Google search? If so, you're using open source software. In fact Amazon, Google, Samsung, Apple, Netflix, TiVo, Comcast, Wikipedia, WordPress, and many many many more companies have built core parts of their businesses using open source technologies.

In a way, you not being aware of open source software in your everyday life is a win. It means that open source is overcoming some of the usability problems that plagued the community through most of the 90's and 2000's. The fact that Android is the dominant mobile operating system means that people are learning to build usable graphical user interfaces (GUI) on top of Linux. It also means that by using the products we love we're making products that we aren't even aware of better simply because they're based on the same open source technologies.

Yet in another way, you not being aware of open source software in your everyday life is bad. When people aren't aware of the possibilities of what they're using they don't know what to expect or even demand. Simply using open source software doesn't mean that your favorite app or website or service is interoperable with anything else. In order to make software work together we also need open standards.

Here's an analogy to make this more tangible. What if in order for you to fill up your car with gas you could only go to your manufacturers shop and you couldn't pump gas from a competing manufacturer because the nozzles were different or the cars used different fuel? That would make it very difficult for you because your manufacturers decisions and processes would have a much bigger effect on your everyday life. You'd have a much more rigid schedule for getting gas. But because there are agreed upon ways that gas pumps work you are able to use any number of competing services. Your manufacturer is free to innovate and make their car better but you have flexibility in how you consume and use gas. The competitors have to earn your business.

Now let's use a technology example. Do you use dropbox? What would happen if tomorrow you wanted to move everything in your dropbox to Amazon, Apple, Microsoft or Google's cloud? Would you be able to have that stuff migrated automatically just by choosing a new service? Or would you have to do all the work yourself?  There are open standards for folder sharing like WebDav. There's no reason that you couldn't just enter your other services credentials into Dropbox and click a button to migrate your data other than them not wanting to make that easy for you.

Right now in the software world it's like we're driving around in cars that all use gas but because the nozzles are all different shapes and sizes we can only get gas from one manufacturer. As a society we seem to have accepted owning the burden of interoperability in our technology. So we choose the services that cause the least amount of pain rather than choosing the services that cause the most amount of joy.

It doesn't have to be this way. If we demanded that our data be migratable and we were easily able to move from Brand A to Brand B then both would be forced to earn our trust. Both would have to work hard to provide us with services and support that delight us. Both would have to listen to us when we say that using their products are difficult or unintuitive.

How do you make these demands you may be asking? With your wallet. Buy software and services from companies that use open source and open standards. Don't buy from those that don't. Talk to your friends and family about this problem and educate them. Ask your friend who is computer literate to help you chose products that will remove some of the burden from you.

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