The Open Source inflection point

Open source is beginning to transform our knowledge based economy in fundamental ways.

Today, open source software powers many important services we use, including the internet and mobile phones. Even the International Space Station switched to open source software in 2013:

We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable — one that would give us in-house control.

But in other areas, the impact is just beginning. Connectivity, mobility and big data are transforming fields like healthcare and transportation where collaborative or open innovation is preferred over traditional product development methods. For example, an open source 3D printed syringe pump design is estimated to provide $800M in economic value. NIH funded research and tools like the UCSF molecular modeling software allow others to use, improve and contribute back much faster — which further accelerates R&D. This acceleration of innovation combines with the declining value of patented Intellectual Property (IP); in fact patents end up slowing the type of innovation they are supposed to encourage. Elon Musk famously open sourced all of Tesla’s patents in 2014. After initial disbelief from some investors, it became clear that this move actually strengthens Tesla, the auto industry, other industries and the public. It’s also worth noting that most contested patent claims are found invalid upon examination by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board!

I have helped license Google-developed and co-developed technologies, including publication under open source licenses. A growing number of firms are seeing the economic value in working closer with open source technologies: starting as adopters and moving to become contributors who benefit from others’ inputs that were made possible by their own earlier contributions to the intellectual commons.

With notable exceptions like the Coca Cola formula, few innovations remain proprietary and popular in the long term. Enduring products and brands tend to be from organizations with dynamic capabilities in their DNA for innovating and transforming, to better disrupt and adapt when disrupted. For such organizations, sharing innovations strengthens their own futures — and every one else’s.

Open technologies are also potentially more robust and secure — owing to the community of researchers testing and contributing back to make it stronger. Many common software encryption and security methods we use today are based on open source technologies.

By lowering the cost to users, especially for early adopters, open source technologies evolve rapidly by learning from a wider set of users. A word of caution about the risks of being an early adopter, especially in regulated activities, for instance driving a car: The popular open source project hosting site GitHub hosts 143 software repositories relating to autonomous cars. Will you be an early adopter by downloading an innovative new algorithm to drive your car?