Open sourcing: Reflections on Community Based Development

Open Source: Community Based Development (Courtesy: Opensource.org)

It was while reading a case-study on 3D Robotics (“3D Robotics: Disrupting the Drone Market”, Berkeley-Haas Case Series) that I was struck by the power of collaborative development and the role internet has played in truly transgressing the barriers of space and time. What started as the means to feed information is now transforming how knowledge is co-created by people living in different regions and time-zones but united by passion and talent. There is a growing trend of online communities where members volunteer their time and energy to co-create new knowledge and refine it.

Levers of Magnetism

I believe the open source culture has the potential to redefine the future. People are more and more inclined to contribute because its inherent community structure makes it a social space and fulfils innate human need of belongingness. It’s about sharing ideas. The barriers to entry are low. It is a democratic virtual space where only talent matters and not the educational qualifications. These characteristics make it agile and reduce transaction costs thereby leading to faster, reliable and economical development and improvement of technologies and products.

Redefining the Landscape

On one hand the end consumers are increasingly adopting open source technologies because they are low cost (mostly free with sometimes exclusive support license costs), easy to customise or integrate with the existing systems, higher in quality (if there is a flaw, the developer community can quickly identify and rectify it), more responsive to changes in the market-place / environment, carry low risk of experimentation because of low upfront investments and reduce business risks as the community would always work on the technology and not abandon it like it would have happened if the technology was proprietary; while on the other hand, firms are also increasingly opening up the source codes / architectures of their technologies to gain from the wisdom of the masses. Collaborative developments are helping reduce R&D costs for the firms, reduce time to market and make technologies more robust by exhaustive bug fixes and improving underlying architecture (adapted from ComputerWorld article: “4 reasons companies say yes to open source). It is also helping increase the direct and in-direct network effects for the firms and their end consumers, especially in technology arena. Google open-sourced Android which led developers not only to adopt it, but also improve it and develop apps for it. Thus, despite being a late entrant in the mobile computing field Google gained the market share which eventually helped its business model. Tesla has adopted open source to develop electric cars and has been able to manufacture incredibly good cars in shorter time compared with other players. Block-chain is another development which has vast potential in varied fields, especially fin-tech. Ultimately, it’s about creating value. Open sourcing is helping companies to capture value of mass intelligence while at the same time making contributors feel sense of prestige in being a part of the solution. This is a win-win situation for all.

Points to Ponder

I believe that open source has been and will help in development of technologies of the future mainly because most firms will not invest in such developments either because of high costs or high risks or simply constrained thinking. At the same time, I wonder if the community based open-source development can attain results on its own without having a moderator / facilitator to guide the efforts. And, if there is a moderator does it not constrain the development to the interpretation, understanding and vision of these moderators? For example, in the 3D Robotics case-study (which I referred to earlier and which inspired me to pen down my thoughts) the end goal (autonomous plane or drone) was formulated by Mr. Chris Anderson (the founder and CEO, 3D Robotics) who also regulated the discussions and developments of the community. Could the final product have been better or different were Anderson not guiding the thinking process? On the other side Bit-coin community developed a great technology product but trying to be truly democratic is now strangulating its own creation. I also wonder if like all democratic movements in social history which start with community participation but are then high-jacked by more powerful protagonists will this movement have the same fate?

In Conclusion

To harvest the full potential of this movement of co-creation a fine balance would be required between the approaches of control and laissez-faire to manage the communities. Community based open source development is capable of benefiting all the stakeholders because of the immense value it creates for all. We have already seen some great feats it has achieved.

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