“Open-Source Has Already Won”

I hope Steve Hargadon will forgive me for stealing something he said at EduBloggerCon last June (I can’t remember the context anymore, to be honest) for my title, but as I have been reading The World is Flat and thinking about technology and open-source, I have been turning Steve’s statement around in my head.

Thomas Friedman interviews executives from Microsoft in The World is Flat. They seem fairly assured of their ability to compete in a world of open-source software, and they have one good reason to believe in their consumers will continue to purchase their products: the vast majority of consumers don’t know any better, or they are not compelled to learn about alternatives.

Most of my colleagues at work use Internet Explorer. It comes bundled with Windows, after all, which is the operating system our school computers use. I like Firefox enough that I am willing to download it myself. Our school recently migrated to Google Apps for e-mail, and the first thing most of my colleagues did was configure Outlook to use as their mail client. I’m not faulting my colleagues. At what point did anyone sit down and show them all that Firefox and G-Mail can do? I don’t fault our Instructional Technology department either. Teachers are notoriously resistant to technology, and when did they have time to show the teachers these alternatives to Microsoft?

Open-source software has a lot of possibilities that I’m really excited about. But the vast majority of the public who uses computer software remains uneducated about open-source software and shows no inclination to learn.

Did you know…

  • An open-source office suite that easily competes with Microsoft Office is available for free? It’s called Open Office. MS Office 2007 is listed at $399.95.
  • An open-source photo editor that easily competes with Adobe Photoshop is available for free? It’s called GIMP. Adobe Photoshop CS3 is listed at $649.99.
  • In fact, a lot of, if not most of the software you use probably has an open-source counterpart?

Open-source is gaining ground, but only among those savvy enough to know anything about it. As large as our ed tech community sometimes seems, I am reminded on a daily basis that we’re really just a few lone voices crying in the wilderness. It is my hope that we can make Steve’s statement come true, and I have already seen encouraging signs:

  • After years of trying to compete with WordPress after a disastrous move toward tiered pricing, Movable Type recently announced that it is open-source. Actually, it’s my opinion (and I’m not alone in this) that MT could no longer viably compete unless they went open-source.
  • The journal Nature announced two years ago that Wikipedia‘s error rate is about the same as that of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • Microsoft’s Office 2007 suite changed the file extensions to Office OpenXML. Files are now a lot smaller. The user interface in Office is totally different, too. One could argue that among the many reasons for these changes is that Microsoft wanted to stay viable in light of the many alternatives to Office that are now available. After all, all of the open source or online office suites and word processing programs I can think of are compatible with Microsoft’s older extensions — anyone smell a move toward phasing the older extensions out, making it harder for the competition to play nicely with Microsoft Office documents?
  • In the first two years of its existence, Firefox managed to erode IE’s market share by 10 percent. When IE 7 was released, who could fail to notice that one of Firefox’s most popular features, tabbed browsing (which is also available in other free, open source browsers), was now included in IE?

All of these things mean that community-built, open-source software is definitely winning some battles, but the war is still raging.

I recently e-mailed my daughter’s school to let them know their website was really problematic in a variety of ways, only to discover they felt they had done a great deal of work on the site. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but after our exchange, I decided to check out the site in IE. It looked fine. When I told them their site was actually not rendering properly in Firefox, they were dismissive. In fact, I think the exact words were “I’m glad you can see the real website now.” As of this week, they still have not fixed the site so that it renders properly in Firefox. I don’t think they know how. And I don’t think they intend to learn. After all, most of the people using their website are probably using IE.

It is my hope that there will come a time when that kind of thinking won’t cut it. I just checked the site in Safari, and it looks the same as it does in Firefox. So essentially, that means Mac users can’t look at the site unless they use IE for Mac, which is no longer available for download from Microsoft and will not be updated. So it’s acceptable for a school to create a site only Windows users surfing on IE can view?

Only in a world where open-source hasn’t quite won… yet.

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2 thoughts on ““Open-Source Has Already Won”

  1. I should probably clarify the quote, since your points are good. To say that Open Source has won doesn't mean that we won't continue to live in a world with both proprietary and OS Software. Or that the only good things created will be through the "open" process (look at the iPhone, for example). I think what I mean/meant is that we've opened Pandora's Box with collaborative technologies, and I don't think we're going to go back.

    On a practical level, the first thing that OSS has done has been to try to re-create existing software programs. And I do believe that Open Office and Google Docs really are going to spell the end of the Word Processor program as something you "purchase." In my mind, most basic software utilities are going to be free–like the information in Wikipedia. I don't think it will be overnight, but more and more people I know who know nothing about computers now use Firefox and OpenOffice.org and I don't think they will go back to paying for those kinds of programs.

    But duplicating what has already existed, while it was once a lofty goal, now seems to not really even touch the potential of "open source." At this more theoretical level, there is an argument that Open Source Software was just the first manifestation of how collaborative technologies with the Internet are going to change a lot of what we do, and I agree. I think that there are many ways in which OS/collaborative methods are going to be help us accomplish significant human endeavors, so much so that I am fascinated and excited to see what the future holds.

    So maybe it's not really fair to say that Open Source has won, but in my mind, what appears to be a ongoing battle is really just a period of adjustment to an ultimate, and more open, reality. :)

  2. Steve, I totally got what you meant. I suppose I'm just frustrated by the fact that there are so many great OS programs out there, and people continue to remain ignorant. The incident with my daughter's school's website really bothered me, as I felt they were essentially telling me that if the page only rendered in IE, it was my problem. That's not good enough.

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