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Open Source Is More Than Software Alone

Open Source is "Not the Face of God"

  • November 30, 2006
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Open source development is influencing phenomena far beyond software, including manufacturing processes, classroom teaching, and the types of media now emerging online, said CollabNet CTO Brian Behlendorf, best-selling author Thomas L. Friedman, and other members of a panel of business and technology visionaries.

Speaking November 30 at an executive summit in New York City, Behlendorf, Friedman, Web 2.0 luminary Tim O'Reilly, and Reuters Group COO Devin Wenig touched on how concepts such as collaboration, componentry, and reusability, which have evolved over the years as elements of open source development, are now becoming increasingly ubiquitous elsewhere.

In his business best-seller The World Is Flat, Friedman cited open source software as one of ten forces that are "flattening" the world, making it easier for individuals to communicate with each other across the globe.

Early in the presentation Thursday, presenters gave a couple of examples along these lines.

"'Subversion' is our disrupter," said Behlendrof, referring to one of CollabNet's on-demand collaborative software development solutions. Collabnet is the primary corporate sponsor of the open source Subversion project.

Subversion gets "contributors from all over the world," according to Behlendorf, who founded CollabNet and also co-founded the Apache Web Server Foundation. In one illustration of "flattening," Behlendorf told of a student from Sweden who became a prolific contributor of bug fixes to Subversion.

But upon finally meeting this contributor, Behlendorf was astonished to learn that the student is "a person without eyesight."

The student had set up his computer to let him collaborate online. Without the "flattening" effects of the Internet, plus some specialized technology, the sightless developer wouldn't have been able to join in on the project.

Google, too, has been built through open source development, even though the search engine site keeps its intellectual property "proprietary," noted O'Reilly, another panelist.

But Google also promotes collaboration in another way outside of development, O'Reilly said.

Each time you do a search on Google, the search engine saves the links to help with future searches by other users.

Reuters' Wenig addressed the ways in which collaboration has changed content for "some, but not all" of Reuters' online properties.

Once upon a time, before the advent of open source, a developer would tell himself, "I will build a piece of software," according to the Reuters COO.

And a year ago, a Reuters journalist would say, "I wrote a news story, and I hope you will read it."

Now, though, Reuters is placing a growing emphasis on moderation of content such as online forums, which allow for the sharing of experiences and perspectives among readers everywhere.

Panelists also spoke about the appearance of componentry in manufacturing and the supply chain, and the role technology is playing--in some classrooms, at least--in "flattening" the learning process.

As one instance of componentry, O'Reilly pointed to a Web site that builds neakers to order.

In some classrooms, Behlendorf noted, all students are outfitted with laptops, and the teacher is, too.

Students might be allowed to IM each other, and they might also surreptitiously browse the Web--finding an article on Wikipedia which contradicts what the instructor is saying in class, perhaps.

Behlendorf also suggested that, for the classroom to do a better job of preparing people for the world of work, maybe students ought to be allowed to "reuse content," something they've always been strongly discouraged from in the past.

Open source is "not the face of God," Behlendorf acknowledged. "But it ends up being mystical. Our best friends are people who live in other countries."

But the "flattening of the world" has some down sides, too, according to Friedman, who aside from being a book author also works as a New York Times foreign affairs columnist.

Friedman backed up this conclusion with an anecdote about a cab ride he once took. While driving the taxi, the cabbie also talked on his cell phone and viewed videos. Friedman rode in the back, listening to his iPod and writing a column on his laptop.

"So we were each doing three things," Friedman said. But although technology such as the cell phone and laptop gave them global communications capabilities, the driver and the author only spoke once to each other during the entire ride.

"The world can become too small," according to the best-selling author.

Also at the event, which was entitled "Innovation & Growth In a Flat World," Collabnet introduced Cubit (Centralized and Unified Build, Integration and Test Environment), an on-demand build and tests governance environment for collaborative software

This week also marked the official rollout of openCollabNet, a Web 2.0-enabled online community that connects 1.5 million users of Subversion and CollabNet, providing the developers with free access to technical content, discussion forums, product extensions, and other resources.

Presented by CollabNet in partnership with InformationWeek, Thursday's executive forum was moderated by David Kirkpatrick, senior editor, Internet technology, for Fortune.

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