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The Concrete Benefits of Open Source Software

Following up on an earlier blog posting, Indian Open Standards Policy Finalized, I read an article published in the The Hindu, one of India's leading newspapers, about the concrete benefits of this policy. It also provides a very meaningful template for open source advocates to see how well an argument can be made with the proper framing of facts. Here is a quote from the third paragraph:

SCOSTA [the Smart Card Operating System for Transport Applications] was a standard developed for smart card-based driving licences and transport-related documentation by different State governments. It was developed by the National Informatics Centre in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Despite attempts by proprietary lobbies to make the body opt for a proprietary standard, the NIC and academics went ahead and developed an open standards, one that comprised technological specifications that were entirely royalty-free, and put up the specifications on their website. By doing so, they made a huge impact on the entire market.

The fourth paragraph continues:

The number of vendors providing cards and card readers shot up. Instead of four foreign companies that were involved in making smart cards earlier, more than a dozen Indian companies entered the market and bid competitively for projects in this sector. Obviously, intellectual property right rents dropped dramatically (since the standard opted for royalty-free specifications) and the market price of a card fell from Rs. 300 to Rs. 30. This case study was published in a United Nations Development Programme report on e-government interoperability.

The principle point here is not that foreign companies are all devils nor that local industry can only be good, but that when competition is opened up, and when the contest in question has real value and real social importance, things that seemed quite impossible when considered from the perspective of the status quo seem downright logical to those who want to solve problems.

Indeed, this was the great paradox I faced as a newly minted BS CSE and looking for work. Very early in my career I earned a reputation as a programmer who could do in an evening what would normally take a month, in a weekend what would normally take a year, and ... you get the idea. And yet when it came to getting those implementations adopted, nobody seemed to want to pick them up because $BIGCOMPANY didn't do things that way. The competitive world in which I lived was stratified: I could compete with my peers for bragging rights, but the real competitors had locked up the market a long time ago, and they were not about to change their ways to allow new ideas to flourish...not their own, and especially not those from the outside.

How much open source and open standards have changed things these past 25 years!

First, most every $BIGCOMPANY now understands that open source is a better way for them to get their own jobs done. That battle has been won. And increasingly (albeit grudgingly), most every $BIGCOMPANY is willing to concede that open source is a pretty good way of solving their customer's problems, too. The story reported in The Hindu is yet another proof point that open source is the most pro-competitive, pro-capitalistic way to integrate technology into government, industry, and commerce, even if it does upset a few entrenched players. And it foretells of many, many benefits to come as the level playing field not only opens the market to new competitors, but to the creation of new complementary businesses. That is where the real growth will come from.

We all know that technologically speaking, the Internet and Open Source have been co-engines of growth. The rapid adaptability of open source enabled the Internet to grow in amazing new ways. And the adaptability of the Internet made possible new markets, new businesses, and new customer expectations. That virtuous cycle continues even today. What India—the world's most populous democracy and one of the world's fastest-growing economies—is about to learn is just how ready open source is to open their country to the benefits of the enormous human capital created by the IITs and open source technology.

But the opportunity is not limited to India. I'll bet you can think of 10 things today, right now, that could be easily fixed with better competition, more open markets, and a system of innovation that lets the best ideas win. What is it about the status quo that keeps these 10 things from getting fixed? Could you fix them if you were given the opportunity? If so, promoting open source in your community, as the India people have in theirs, could be your best hope for a better future. All it takes is for you to be the change you want to see in the world...

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Steve Wozniak reportedly offered to sell the Apple I design to his $BIGCOMPANY employer five times. Five times they refused. Fortunately for that Steve, he and another Steve were able to introduce the computer to hobbyists and college students and become overnight successes after 10 years.