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  1. Hardware
October 26, 2017

A World without Open Source?

We use open source on a daily basis. From Android to Wikipedia, open source software is a core element of our daily lives. For Gerald Pfeifer from SUSE, a world without open source is hardly imaginable. Nevertheless, he envisioned what that world would look like – with a surprising outcome…

By James Nunns

When using the term open source, we broadly mean immaterial goods that are

Gerald Pfeifer, senior director of product management and operations at SUSE

available to everybody at any time without significant restrictions and free of charge.

Today the concept of open source is far reaching: Wikipedia makes knowledge available publicly and for free. And even blueprints for hardware are available open source.

In its original form this applied to software, which was made available for free and as source code. This was especially significant after vendors began to capitalise on “closed” code, following the openness of the early days of IT. With open source, everybody can examine the software, use and modify it at will, create something new and share the outcome.


Open source at the core

Despite the wide-ranging definition of open source, we mostly use the term for joint development in software projects. This is not only an environment for computer science students but software developers around the globe – including enterprises that usually are natural rivals such as AMD, ARM, Fujitsu, HPE, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Red Hat, SAP and SUSE, all of whom are contributing to various open source projects.

Open source opens a space for bright ideas and the accomplishment of projects – together. The most impressive example is probably the history of Linux. Starting in 1991 as the invention of Finnish student Linus Torvalds, today Linux is the foundation for many of our everyday tools: from operating systems for PCs and servers (such as SUSE or Debian) to smart-phones (Android) and other mobile devices.

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Many public and private clouds, such as Amazon and Google, have one thing in common: Linux is at their technical heart, with open source running in their veins. Linux is present up to the highest performance requirements: 99.6% of the supercomputers worldwide and many HPC clusters run with this free system. One thing is crystal clear: without open source our everyday life, economy and science would be hardly recognisable.


Monotonous monopolies

But what would it look like, a world without open source? Firstly, it would be more boring. We would be locked in a world of grey software monopolies: the market for PC operating systems would likely be almost wholly owned by Windows, which would share the server market with some traditional Unix vendors. On smartphone screens, billions of users would see the same: Symbian or at best Windows Phone.

The foundation for Android is the Linux kernel, while iOS is also ultimately based on open source. The base for Apple‘s operating system is Darwin that again builds on BSD, the Mach kernel and other open source projects. And iOS history also shows that open source software is more than Linux – there is in fact another open ecosystem based on BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution).


Clocks run slower

Imagine if Dennis Ritchie hadn’t made the “C” programming language widely available in the 70s, or if a little later in time the BSD distribution hadn’t been developed, or if Richard Stallman hadn’t founded the GNU project in 1983. In “closed source country” there would be no digital transformation; rather society would remain in the digital middle ages and progress would come very slowly. Even when people want to cooperate in “closed source country” that turns out to be difficult: a common ground has to be found between all the proprietary systems in the form of common standards. Such convergence on common standards is very difficult as every partner would want to implement as many of his own standards as possible. This results in long lasting negotiations and leads to half-hearted compromises. And even if – despite all hurdles – an agreement can be reached on such a multi-lateral standard, it might be obsolete upon release or might need to be revisited as soon as a new partner joins the agreement, and negotiations would have to start anew.


What a difference open source makes when common, neutral standards are ruling. Without those we would have to abandon fundamental innovation such as the cloud – a technology that is base for a lot of modern business models, from AirBnB to Uber. MacOS would – if at all – exist in a different form, as Apple developers, too, rely on open-source-tools and components. On the whole, software in closed source country would be more sedate, monolithic and ultimately more expensive.


In space, in the human body, everywhere!

The motto “Share your knowledge for the good of all” predates the open source community; for a long time this idea has been an integral part of the scientific community and it’s no wonder that open source plays an essential role in science. We already mentioned Supercomputers and HPC clusters, which ensure that the masses of data collected by scientists can be analysed.

Looking into galaxies without open source software, much would stay in the dark. And open source software also enables new insights into the human body. Medicine increasingly uses open source-based systems for computer tomography or MRI, for example.

We are also surrounded by open source in our daily lives, think transportation. The GENIVI Alliance with members such as BMW and Intel aims for the development of open infotainment systems for cars. Toyota customers will benefit from entertainment for the digital age with Automotive Grade Linux. And many airlines use this technology already.


Open source – a natural development

It quickly becomes clear that without open source we would lose a lot of variety and, of course, the speed of innovation that we enjoy today. A world without open source does not represent an acceptable alternative. Fortunately, we do not have to worry about this scenario – it is highly unlikely that open source will disappear. And, even then, we would quickly “reinvent” the concept.

The advantages of work-sharing have been recognised since early civilisation. Why would we neglect these principles in the digital world? Particularly since the pool of potential participants in a community  can become enormous. The entry requirements for participation in an open project are almost minimal: curiosity, interest, a system with Internet access and free of charge tutorials open the door into many international communities. Their strength is diversity (as every participant contributes their individual approach), focus and unconventional thinking.

Enterprises can now benefit from this power of innovation and efficiently raise their market position thanks to Linux, while those who let the opportunity go to waste will soon be left behind. It is no wonder that many well-known businesses have found their way into the open source world. They do not only benefit from open source but actively contribute.


An important pillar of digitisation

Open source is fully intertwined with today’s digital world. Many companies and developers are driving the movement and all of us are seeing the benefits, whether you’re a developer benefiting from the experiences of companies, or a business using the creative ideas and innovation coming from the community.

But let’s not forget the consumer in all of this, who also takes advantage of open source through a broad variety of technology and products on a daily basis, often without even realising. Society as a whole advances with technical progress and new ways of communication and collaboration.  A world without open source is hard to conceive. And indeed we hardly could do without — even if we tried.

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