Open Source Has Changed Everything

By Samuel Greengard

A quarter century ago, before pervasive computer networks and mobility burst into the mainstream, every product—automobiles, refrigerators, typewriters and telephones—was proprietary. There was very little need to collaborate with any other company on basic design and engineering—unless it was a supplier.

But a quiet revolution that began in earnest in 1991, when Linus Torvalds released the first version of Linux, has sent ripples—perhaps tsunami is a better choice of words—throughout the business world…and beyond. The open source concept has fundamentally rewired the way businesses operate and the way they develop products. Platforms such as Linux, Java and Apache Hadoop have turned things upside down and inside out.

Increasingly, products must interact with outside devices and software. From photography to home automaton, it’s becoming far more difficult to build things that work inside a walled garden. Today, a product or app is merely a cog in much bigger wheel of integrated machines and code. Mobility, clouds and the demand for big data exacerbate this trend.

To be sure, connected devices mean connected systems—and highly connected relationships with partners. Cisco Systems predicts that 99 percent of all items in the physical world will eventually be tagged. Already, companies are tagging everything from trees to medical devices. It’s not difficult to see how products can quickly become marginalized or obsolete without an open source approach.

Take Nike’s Fuelband. It has proved wildly successful since it hit the market in February 2012. I’ve worn one and found it well designed and useful. But when I recently decided to get a more serious about tracking my health I realized that Nike’s proprietary approach wouldn’t work for me. There’s no way to get the data into other apps. The Fitbit Force, on the other hand, integrates with numerous devices and apps that track activity, calories/weight, sleep and much more. The upshot? I recently switched to the open platform. Hello Fitbit, goodbye Nike.

This is but one isolated example. Connected homes, connected machines and connected devices all demand a new approach and a new way of thinking. It’s still critical to offer a superior product, but total control over products is a lost cause. And any business or IT leader that can’t grasp an open source mindset is doomed to stumble or fail—even with the best product and all the marketing clout in the world.

That’s the digital code for business in the 21st century.

About the Author

Samuel Greengard is a contributing writer for CIO Insight. To read his previous CIO Insight blog post, “Mobile App Security Needs Improvement,” click here.

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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