Friday, November 27, 2015

The third wave of Open Source

I was 6 years old when Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in 1983. I was completely unaware of that historic moment, and, obviously, I couldn't have cared less anyway.

I was 14 when Linus Torvalds started to work on the Linux kernel. I was just finishing up the elementary school, very difficult time for a kid, I wouldn't have cared much even if I had known. It was a pre-internet era for most Hungarians, I could not have learnt about it anyway.

It took two more years to come across with the free software movement first. For me and for my friends, struggling with the upcoming adulthood, it was such an appealing idea. We were extremely hyped, started every kind of open source projects, and also got involved in many others. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, downloading fresh Linux distributions during many nights (to exploit cheap minutes) on a 33.6K modem.

Later on Linux got more and more attention, but for most people it was just a marginal movement, a kind of adult playground, unusable for real applications. I think, the next milestone could be 1997, when Eric Raymond published his essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, what inspired Netscape to release Netscape Communicator as a free software. Then companies started to use Linux, first, only for less critical systems, then, as they learnt how reliable it is, for replacing of the expensive Windows NTs. Those were nasty times, many people considered open source as a threat, and they took it very personally, it felt like a battle of generations.

But the open source movement was unstoppable, and it is mainstream now, the battle is over, the victory is total.

This was the first wave of open source. The second wave is open source hardware.

I couldn't say the exact date it started, but 2005, when Arduino was introduced, was a big milestone in any rate. Arduino is a microcontroller, a tiny computer which is capable of  interacting with the physical world by reading sensors and controlling every kind of actuators (e.g. motors). And it is inexpensive (I mean really inexpensive, some versions can be bought online as cheap as 2$ or less) and mostly because it is open source. There are so many great projects built on Arduinos, 3D printers, every kind of robots, and  so on. And there are many other great open hardware projects e.g. my personal favorite, poppy, which is a state of the art humanoid robotic platform.

Open hardware is not as fundamental part of our life as open software is, it is just forming before our very eyes. Still, being one of the, if not the main, factors behind the maker movement, it already left a mark on the world.

50 years ago nobody wanted to create a scanning electron microscope or a fusion reactor at home. Obviously, there are many reasons behind it, but at least one of them is conceptual complexity. Even a simple robotics project is incredibly demanding, one has to understand software (general purpose + embedded), hardware (electronics, mechanics), not to mention the special, project specific knowledge. A quick glimpse on the required skills and knowledge enough to put off most people as the complexity is just intimidating.

Dealing with complexity is where we are doing better I believe. The knowledge level rises in the world? Maybe. Was it triggered by the open source movement? Probably the other way around. But the open source movement certainly has a kind of reinforcement effect, it boosts the development by making the necessary resources freely and/or easily available.  

Last week I came across the recent Open Source Insulin project. This makes me shivering with excitement. Is it already the third wave?



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