Open source has made a lot of things possible in the years since it first appeared. Of course, Linux is probably the best known open source project but there are also countless other projects which have caught the imagination of computer users worldwide (for example PHP, MySQL, Apache and BSD). Free Beer is not an obvious child of the open source revolution but it really does exist. Read on and I’ll explain more shortly….
Firstly, here is an interesting question; what is the dominant feature of open source? Is it the availability of source code or is it the community working on the project? Is open source simply about making source code available to everyone or is it about building communities of like-minded people?
One interesting commentary on this question was written a few weeks ago by Bill Weinberg. In his article entitled Open Source is not a verb he argues that the verb "to open source" has a wider meaning than simply attaching a license to some source code and posting it in a Sourceforge project. According to Weinberg, open sourcing is about building and nurturing a community and without that community, the act of open sourcing is incomplete since the result is "lifeless, static and unread".
What was particularly interesting about the article was the reaction it received. Many opinions about his linguistics and spelling were expressed but, more importantly, others commented that the mere act of placing source code where others could see it was "open sourcing" in its truest and most complete form.
For my part, I think it depends largely on perspective. For those individuals who work within projects, source code is a catalytic element which spawns and drives a project forward and as such, it is crucial to the momentum of the project. However, it is often the case that users of open source based products rarely (if ever) look at the source code. For example, it is my experience that Firefox users hardly ever download the Firefox source code; for them the active and enthusiastic community developing and evolving the product is much more important than their own individual access to the source code.
Of course, being in the software industry, it is easy to forget that open source is not just about software source code. The same ideal of a community of interested parties working together to develop a project can, and is, adopted across many interest areas.
Grupthink, a site which enables users to ask and vote on open-ended questions, recently explored the topic of Best Open Source Project. Voting still continues but, as of today, the Firefox browser, notable for it’s strong community, seems to be well placed to take this particular title.
Possibly more interesting however is the project in second place. Wikipedia, a resource for which no source code (in the traditional sense) exists, is licensed under a GFDL license and is therefore a true open source project. It is most notable for its up-to-date content which is a direct result of its vibrate community of volunteer editors without which Wikipedia would quickly become "lifeless, static and unread". As such, Wikipedia must surely stand as a striking example of the importance of an active community.
By the way, third in the Grupthink list is the worlds most widely used web server Apache, and fourth, despite being thought of by many as the "big daddy" of all open source projects, is Linux.
But open source does not begin and end in the software and/or Internet domain. An excellent example is Free Beer; an open source beer for which the recipe is freely available for download and modification and any product produced can be sold for profit as long as the derived recipe is published under the same license and appropriate credit is given. The recipe is published under a Creative Commons license and it’s currently at version 3.0.
So Free Beer is, in reality, only free as in free speech (not as in free beer). Which means that, like Wikipedia and Linux, it is available for anyone to examine and to modify and it’s also available for users to consume (at an appropriate cost). In the case of Free Beer that’s a benefit which I suspect will be more frequently enjoyed than examination or modification !