Open Source Economics

Law professor Yochai Benkler explains how collaborative projects like Wikipedia and Linux represent the next stage of human organization. By disrupting traditional economic production, copyright law and established competition, they’re paving the way for a new set of economic laws, where empowered individuals are put on a level playing field with industry giants.

Hugely informative and passionate – an amazing talk that should be heard by ANYONE even remotely interested in the future of the internet and any form of social organisation.

Microsoft to give away Development Tools to Students

Microsoft announced that it intends to give students some of its most advanced development tools – for free! Here’s some official coverage over at MSDN. So how do we interpret such a move? Is it an act of desperation or one of sheer brilliance? I personally think its a pretty astute move.

By giving away Visual Studio Professional, along with a slew of other development tool’s they’re trying to gain traction with Student’s – and shape their thinking. As a student I couldn’t afford to buy the Microsoft development tools, so always opted for Open Source tool’s and technologies and working with those tools, and indeed contributing to them, which shaped my thinking and the path that I eventually took. It’s unclear how receptive Student’s will be to this – but make no mistake this about winning hearts and minds, and if you can win them at an early age then your onto a winner – that’s the gamble.

I personally think it’ll be nice to see some more competition … whilst I love Open Source I often think that many OS projects, particularly dev tools, tend to rest on the laurels or assume that since the competition is so expensive it doesn’t necessarily matter if the UI isn’t as good as it should be, or it doesn’t have as many features as a commercial equivalent – User’s will learn to accept any shortcomings. Now as a developer I’ve used many IDE’s and many many tool’s and even I have to admit that Microsoft’s tools are wonderful, in fact it’s interesting to think of which way I would have gone eleven or twelve years ago if MS had provided a similar incentive for us?

I have to confess the cynic me does wonder if this is simply a case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted?

Benefits of Open Sourcing Code

Open Source Developers @ Google Speaker Series: Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick

What’s In It for Me? How Your Company Can Benefit from Open Sourcing Code

As the open source community continues to clamor for more companies to open source their code, more and more executives are asking themselves just what open source can do for their company. There are a number of ways for a company to open source an internal project: from tossing code over the wall on the one hand to running a fully open development project on the other to any combination of the two.

This talk will discuss the costs and benefits associated with each method as well as how to successfully launch your new open source project.

I really enjoyed this tech talk about the benefits of open sourcing code. and Brian briefly summarise what motivates people working on projects to make them open source:

  • a desire to create better software,
  • or to create a relationship with you users,
  • or in some cases it’s simply good PR,
  • or perhaps it’s simply goodwill on the part of some techies,
  • or it can be a way to get free labour .
  • or it can be a way to change or subvert an entire industry ( take over the world )

They also provide a useful set of criteria with which to measure the health of an open source project, you can do this by measuring the health of the community:

  • Lots of usage ( not users! )
  • A number of active developers
  • Constant improvements and releases
  • No community == dead software

I liked their descriptions of the various differnt approaches organisations take when open sourcing software, these range from the Fake Approach, where organisations rather cynically decide to Open Source their code but do so without using a license approved by the open source initiative, this is little more than a PR exercise and in real terms means the code isn’t really open source and it can alienate both users and developers.

The second approach is to Throw Code Over The Wall, this basically means you remove any names from the code files, you add the appropriate licenses, you tar the whole thing up, post it and then simply walk away. This generates PR and is relatively effortless but it still doesn’t create a community nor does it really attract real techies. You often find that organisations that no longer wish to continue maintaining some piece of software use this approach.

Then there is the Develop Internally, Post Externally. You have a public code repository, where you develop in house but allow the external world to see what your doing. This allows occasional volunteers to submit patches but really there’s no incentive for outsiders to get involved because your not really giving anyone outside the organisation a sense of ownership … this can lead to mistrust, and creates barriers..

Next you have the Open Monarchy, where there are public discussions, there is a public repository, but committers are mostly employees and occasionally individuals outside the organisations. However in this approach one organisation or one individual rules the project and makes all the key decisions. This approach has the benefit that it will garner more credibility from the technical community and you probably will find more volunteers stepping forward to participate in the open discussions your having and to sometimes contribute. But the reality is that this is virtually the same as the previous approach except the discussions are taking place in public and as thus people can participate even though the corporate agenda always wins.

Finally there is Consensus Based Development, in which almost everything is public, all decisions are based on a consensus of the committers – project is its own organisation it exists independently of any organisation. In order to join the community you have to earn your access in other words you have to earn commit privileges. The advantage of this approach is that you build a long term, sustainable community, with a passionate following of committed developers which invariably results in better software.

I found the talk to be extremely informative and it raised my awareness or certainly made me re-think what my definition of open source actually is. In fact this is all particularly relevant to me at the moment given that our development group at Talis is beginning to Open Source some of our software, and I’m wondering what the best way of doing this might actually be.

This is an excellent video to watch and it will challenge your definition of what constitutes an Open Source project.

Science Commons

James Boyle gives a very interesting talk on Science Commons, which is a project within the Creative Commons movement which strives to remove unnecessary legal and technical barriers to the sharing of scientific materials in order to facilitate collaboration and innovation. Boyle gave another similar talk about 7 ways to ruin a technical revolution, and its well worth listening to both of these talks.

Science Commons was launched to expand the Creative Commons mission into the scientific … all » realm. James Boyle will be talking about two Science Commons projects: The Neurocommons and the Materials Transfer Project. The Materials Transfer Project uses standard machine readable licenses so that one day sharing biological materials between labs might be as easy as buying books from Amazon. If these words weren’t forbidden at Google, he’d describe the Neurocommons as a first draft of an open “semantic web” for neurology. The overall goal is to take some of the ingenuity we devote to allowing teenagers to flirt with each other online, or people to share and find mashups, and use it to reduce the transaction costs of science and make it selfishly beneficial for scientists to share more, and more easily.

GimpShop … It’s Gimp for Photoshop Users

For anyone, like me, who is used to using Adobe Photoshop making the transition to The Gimp, which is it’s closest Open Source equivelant,  has always been really difficult largely because we are so used to the Photoshop terminology for features and functions and it’s keyboard shortcuts. We get so used to doing things in a certain way in Photoshop that the second we try to use The Gimp we simply want to give up!  I know I have on many occasions!

Then along comes Scott Moschella, who has taken the Open Source GIMP and made some tweaks to it! In short he’s hacked The Gimp to make it more accessible to Photoshop users:

If you’ve never used Photoshop before, you may not appreciate my GIMPshop hack. What I’ve done is renamed and reorganized GIMP’s tools, options, windows, and menus to closely resemble Adobe Photoshop’s menu structure and naming conventions. Many of the menu options and even whole menus were recreated to faithfully reproduce a Photoshop-like experience. After running my GIMPshop hack, you’ll find that Photoshop and the GIMP are strikingly similar.

Scott has done an amazing job, it’s not a 100% 1 to 1 mapping but it’s close enough for me, and means I can actually be productive in The Gimp!  To get a feel for how close it is compare these screenshots:

The Adobe Photoshop Edit Menu:

..and now its GimpShop equivalent:

You can download GimpShop for free from Scott’s Site here. I strongly recommend this to anyone out there looking for an Open Source, or lets face it a Free, equivalent to PhotoShop!

Google Gears – Building Offline Web Applications

Google has released Google Gears, a new technology that is designed to overcome the single major drawback all web based applications suffer from: they don’t work without an internet connection! Google Gears is an Open Source framework, which is essentially a browser extension that is powered by JavaScript API’s that enable data storage, application caching and multi threading technologies for offline browsing and application use.

I don’t find it at all surprising that Google have invested heavily in trying to find a solution to the problem of we can use online web based applications offline. Although they launched Google Apps last year the take up has been quite slow, I read a few months back that the Commonwealth Bank has suspended a trial of Google Apps which it was thinking of rolling out to its 50,000-strong workforce, and many analysts insist that one of the major reasons for this is that there is no offline availability of these applications. Or as Carl Sjogreen, Google Senior Product Manager, sums the problem up when says:

As more and more people are depending on web applications to manage their lives and get information about what’s going on, it becomes and increasing problem when you can’t access those applications when you’re offline.

Enter Google Gears! this new technology certainly strengthens Google’s  position in going after Microsoft’s lucrative Office franchise, which makes commercial sense, More importantly though the technology actually makes the web and browsers a more attractive platform for building applications that can be used anywhere, anytim regardless of whether you have a connection to the internet or not.

Or as Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, put it:

With Google Gears, we’re tackling the key limitation of the browser in order to make it a stronger platform for deploying all types of applications and enabling a better user experience

There decision to Open Source Gears is also quite an important one. By making the technology Open Source from a relatively early stage Google are inviting others to help improve the technology and build a community around it, and move towards developing with others an industry standard for these hybrid programmes that work both online and offline.

This is quite an exciting development.