13 September 2007

Westminster eForum: Sermon of the Day

No posting yesterday, since I was up at the Westminster eForum talking about open source (now, there's a surprise), along with a few core open-type people like Mark Taylor, Alan Cox and Becky Hogge. However, sadly few Westminster-type people were there whose ear could be bent; mostly it was just preaching to the choir. Here's my sermon:

I have had the privilege of writing about free software and open source for over 12 years now. I say privilege for at least two reasons.

First, the people I have met and interviewed in this world have been pretty extraordinary - and certainly very different in many respects from those I have encountered elsewhere in computing. In particular, they are driven by something that can only be called a passion for writing great programs, and a deeply-held belief that these should be made available as widely as possible.

The second reason my time covering this area has been such a privilege is that the ideas underpinning open source have turned out to be deep and far-reaching. This wasn't really clear a decade ago - certainly not to me - when the idea of writing software collaboratively across the Internet, and then giving it away, was so radical that many people thought it would either fizzle out completely, or remain a kind weird, beard-and-sandles niche.

But today, open source has entered the mainstream: most of the Internet runs on free software; companies like Google depend on it, and more and more governments are deploying it - well, outside the UK, at least. And as open source has become almost commonplace in certain sectors of computing, it has also become clear that this is not just about software. It is about a profound shift that is beginning to make its presence felt elsewhere.

For example, most people know of Wikipedia, which is created collaboratively across the Internet, and made freely available to all - in other words, an open source encyclopaedia. The fact that there are now over two million entries - and that's just the English-language version - shows just what that approach can achieve outside software.

Most people have heard of the Human Genome Project, but not many realise that the reason it succeeded - and prevented US companies from patenting huge swathes of our DNA - was that it was conducted collaboratively, across the Internet, and that its results were placed in the public domain immediately, as a matter of policy. In other words, it applied the open source methodology to genomics.

Less well-known, perhaps, is open access. Here the idea is that the scientific and academic research funded by the taxpayer should be freely available online for anyone to read, and for other scientists to use and to build on. Not an unreasonable wish, you would have thought, and yet one that is being fought fiercely by certain large - and highly-profitable - scientific publishers. The similarity of the idea to software collaboration is evident, and indeed the open access pioneers were directly inspired by open source.

There are other examples, but my allotted time is running out, and we can perhaps explore this area in the question and answer session - or indeed anytime afterwards (you can Google me for contact details). The main point I'd like to leave with you is this: that open source is not about computers, it's about people. It's about how we create, how we share, and how we live and work together in the age of the Internet.

So, far from being some minor technical issue, of interest only to a few anoraks, open source and the larger ideas behind it are, in fact, absolutely central to the way society, democracy and government will function in the 21st century. What we are discussing today is just the beginning.

2 comments:

Matt Asay said...

John Powell (Alfresco CEO who also spoke at the event) told me that you received a standing ovation, Glyn, and well deserved. Thanks for being such an erudite advocate for open source, open data, open access.

glyn moody said...

John is very kind (as are you), and I was pleased finally to meet him. I hope to speak to him again soon.

Talking of advocacy, I seem to recall saying something to him about how lucky he was to have you on board....