Opening minds

A CHAT I had last week with a political science professor reminded me that many people are still in the dark about the benefits – or even the existence – of open source software.

As we exchanged notes on the computers we used for class, she remarked how expensive it was to buy MS Office and seemed delighted when I showed her LibreOffice, a free and open source alternative to Microsoft’s productivity suite that runs in Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

“Where can I get it?” she asked, after I showed her the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation modules that can read and write files in MS Word, Excel and Powerpoint formats.

I pointed her to the LibreOffice Web site (http://www.libreoffice.org) where the program can be downloaded for free, hopeful that I had won over one more convert to open source software.

After our talk, I realized that as a long-time Linux user, I tend to take open source software for granted. But many people who run Windows on their PCs or those who use Macs still don’t realize that there are free and open source alternatives for them as well. Others may already be using open source software without realizing it, browsing away on Mozilla Firefox or watching videos on VLC, both of which are open source projects.

Windows users who want to explore these alternatives can try the Open Source Windows Web site (http://opensourcewindows.org/) or the more extensive OSSwin Project (http://osswin.sourceforge.net/). Mac users can go to Open Source Mac (http://opensourcemac.org/).

More than just free software, open source is a philosophy that emphasizes sharing and collaboration as a way to speed up development and to drive innovation.

The open source movement believes that the source code — program instructions in their original form — should be made available free of charge to anyone for use or modification, as long as any changes done to the program are shared in the same open manner.

Typically, open source software is created in a collaborative effort where programmers, often working from different parts of the world, improve on the code and share the changes within the community. This was exactly how the Linux operating system, the poster boy of the open source movement, grew up to be a billion-dollar industry in the last two decades.

The open source philosophy has extended beyond software. Two years ago, at a Future of the Book conference in Manila, the founder of Flat World Knowledge spoke of his company’s vision of lowering the cost of textbooks by adopting the open source model.

Flat World Knowledge publishes its titles under the Creative Commons license, which means users are free to copy or modify them. The company and its authors make money when teachers or students order printed, PDF or audio versions of the books, or buy any of the study aids that Flat World also offers.

Curiously, open source is even extending into the realm of hardware.

In a presentation at a TED conference last month, Massimo Banzi, co-founder of a company called Arduino, which makes an open source micro-controller, showed how it is now possible, as his friend did, to go to a Web site, download a file, and “print” it to a 3D printer – to create objects, in his example, a toy car.

“This idea that you can manufacture objects digitally is something that The Economist magazine defined as the Third Industrial Revolution,” Banzi said.

“Actually, I argue that there is another revolution going on, and it’s the one that has to do with open-source hardware and the maker’s movement, because the printer that my friend used to print the toy is actually open source.”

At the heart of the 3D printer are open-source Arduino circuit boards that can be used to control a wide variety of electro-mechanical components.

“We publish all the design files for the circuit online, so you can download it and you can actually use it to make something, or to modify, to learn,” Banzi said.

The community of open-source makers responded with an explosion of imaginative applications, including a Geiger counter that the Japanese used after the Fukushima disaster when they were convinced that the government wasn’t publishing reliable data; scientific instruments that would normally cost a lot of money; a glove that understands sign language and transforms the gestures into sounds and words, and an earthquake monitor developed by a 14-year-old boy in Chile.

More light-hearted uses include a selective feeding tray that opens and closes, depending on which cat approaches it; a device that measures the well-being of a plant and then sends out Twitter messages saying “This is really hot” or “I need water right now”; and a device that mutes the TV whenever keywords like “Kardasian” are mentioned.

With open-source hardware, Banzi sums up, “You don’t need anybody’s permission to create something great.”

You can watch the entertaining and mind-expanding talk at http://bit.ly/arduino_at_ted.

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