Spurred by conversation with my girlfriend over the weekend, I've been thinking about different parallels between certain economic/political/social systems and the open source industry. Mainly, I've come to the conclusion that open source (as a methodology, ecosystem and movement) does a commendable job of naturally balancing the different aspects of economic, political and social needs of an extensive group of involved parties. This, the first part of a three pronged series, will explore how open source inherently promotes shared ownership of the equivalent 'tools and means of production' while also driving profitability and reducing costs for established profit channels.
Before starting, it is necessary to state that I am of the opinion that this is a topic which can/should be explored in further detail. The intention here is to stimulate thought and discussion surrounding potentially detailed analysis and investigation. Likewise, this shouldn't be taken as an endorsement or criticism of a particular form of economic/political/social system.
How Did It Get Here?
Unfortunately, a great deal of highly interesting dynamics introduced by the emergence of open source are being ignored in favor of forming shallow perspectives related solely to products, companies and services. All of which exist as a result of the very dynamics that are repeatedly overlooked. Nonetheless, there still exists a wide ranging set of implications and potentialities which are very much relevant and beg to be considered. Particularly applicable, in light of increasingly globally-oriented relationships and economies, is how open source has succeeded in endorsing better forms of ownership while also fueling traditional forms of corporate profits and cost reductions.
Going forward it should be kept in mind that in modern-day, information driven economies, ownership, tools and production mean drastically different things than they did 50 years ago. For the record, an increasing portion of value is generated through the manipulation of things like 'knowledge capital' and other forms of non-physical asset. Likewise, the means of production for such entities also differ substantially from the past.
A prime example of this reality is software. While software can take physical form and its production is not entirely 'virtual' it's development has come to rely on very much non-physical means such as distributed collaboration aided by the Internet. The result is that traditional ownership, in the form of direct control of those means of production, has come under assault. Compared to 'widget manufacturing' where the environment in which widget creation takes place - a factory of some sort where its lease, physical property rights, etc. is owned by a personage (corporation, state or even an individual) - software production can take place without regard to a designated physical location. Plus, the means of distributing produced widgets (storage, shipping, stocking) are also resigned to an owned physical presence. Still a requirement today, the sole dependency on traditional forms of production and distribution has been diminished.
Early on, this actuality proved to be a boon to the companies who brought software products into existence. Since it could be produced pretty much anywhere and distributed in an increasingly less expensive manner with minimal opportunity costs for reproduction, the business of software has doubled as a fairly substantial wealth generator at more than one level. Over the last three decades, the rise of corporations such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP further serve to confirm this position.
Where Open Source Fits In
Even still, before the emergence of open source it held true that only some form of business structure could consistently muster the resources in the form of people (developers, testers) and particularly tools to rationalize the costs (despite being relatively low) of developing software (especially those types which other businesses have come to rely upon). Thus companies tended to start-up around an idea (see: VisiCalc) or market opportunity (see: Microsoft) which were later formalized into a product by a company using a closed software development process. Alternatively, open source consists of organic communities jump starting projects which can prove their viability before the concept of a company even enters the picture, if it ever does. A valuable evolution considering the initial and continued attenuation of product development costs that occurs as a result.
By producing a wide array of free and low-cost tools (in the form of software, documentation and other forms of congealed forms of knowledge) using those community-centric models, the open source movement has at once destroyed barriers to and created new opportunities for ownership of those very tools. Even the word ownership, has to be redefined as community driven development has taken the control of production away from select, closed groups and equitably distributed it in a more egalitarian manner. Accordingly, it isn't necessary to have total control in order to reap the benefits of ownership, it's possible to take a contributory role while also leveraging ownership at the same time. The concept of increased ownership through contribution has powered the growth of self-maintaining communities capable of generating value internally and externally.
Keeping with the factory analogy, buyers of proprietary software have slim hope of ever
receiving the benefits of shared ownership in the process of closed software development. They are reduced to passive consumers of a defined output in the same way that factory workers are limited to the role of productive cog within a strictly hierarchal, top-down assembly engine. Full control resides on the side of the proprietary company as much as it remains in the hands of the factory/plant owner. On the other hand, open source encourages ownership as much as it does use/consumption. Users are immediately made stakeholders in the direction, progress and success of the software in addition to being granted the freedom to better determine their own dependence on that specific component.
It might seem intuitive that the increase in the potential for control at granular levels made possible by opportunities to own the associated tools would mean a loss for larger corporations (privatized articles of existence and ownership). However - even within heavily competitive, market-driven environments - easier to acquire tools have fueled the development of even more and better quality open source software, from which a substantial number of large businesses are able to profit. So despite the fact that market share is being both won (by a new generation of commercial open source software company) and lost (by some traditional vendors whose business models are at the other end of the spectrum), open source has harmoniously fueled its own growth while meeting and exceeding the needs of both the individual/small[er] company and the large corporation.
This takes on added significance today as most are left wondering if runaway global giants such as WalMart and Target can coexist in accord with the needs of the smaller business and the individual at a local level. The manner in which global companies of similar force (see: IBM) profit from the Linux ecosystem without marginalizing smaller plays may speak to potential avenues which promote increased mainstream profits without homogenization and/or reduced competition.
The next (second) part of this series will focus on how the open source universe effectively merges community oriented ideals with the concept of private ownership.