Open source software: a social and economic innovation

Date: 2014
Le logiciel libre : une innovation sociale et économique
Article Index
Efficiency, collaboration and ethics: open source…
The growing European open source market
Open source use around the world

A short history of free

The open-source movement has its roots in the 1970s cyberculture of the West Coast of the United States. Also referred to as Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) or Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS), the open-source movement arose out of a syncretic paradox (Turner, 2006), between countercultural 'New Communalists' (or hippies), public research and industry. Cyberculture transformed information technology, which had until then been perceived as a centralized mechanism for social control and repression, into a tool for emancipation, autonomy, universal communication and freedom. At the cutting edge of this technological avant-garde was the figure of the hacker (Levy, 1984), a self-taught computer fanatic, an enlightened enthusiast, whichwho would become the driving force for technological and social innovation.

The big information technology corporations could not have imagined that there would one day be a market for personal information. In 1977, Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corporation, was unequivocal: 'There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home' (Gayer, 2003). The information revolution of the 1990s and 2000s - the Internet, personal computers and so on - was born in the cyberculture and hacker circles of the Homebrew Computer Club, at Resource One, at Community Memory and at the People's Computer Company. In 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who were regulars at the Homebrew Computer Club, created the first personal computer, the Apple I. For years, the industry remained reliant on user groups that improved software, traded tips and created patches; these groups, which were more or less formal, were also a guarantee of loyalty (Mounier-Kuhn, 2010). At the time, the cost of materials was far too high and software far too unstable to be marketed. Then, from the late 1970s, the more rigorous application of copyright, as well as the emergence of a specific market, put an end to these early flexible, open collaborations.

Those pioneers may have paved the way for democratic access to computers, but proponents of free access today have taken up the mantle, providing free, universal use of high quality, customizable software. The free software movement is not interested in promises for the future; the open-source community works on concrete accomplishments that are in effect today.

Mapping the open-source movement

Richard Stallman, recognized as the founding father of the free software movement, came out of hacker culture (and has been dubbed 'the last hacker' [S. Levy, op. cit.]. Stallman was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of professionals and safeguard an approach to computing based on sharing, exchange and hacking. In 1985, he created the Free Software Foundation to promote a software suite that was free to use, trade, modify and study. By creating copyleft licences in 1989 (the GNU General Public License), Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen provided users and developers with basic legal protection. Copyleft also allowed open-source programs to be in competition with proprietary software that was subject to copyright - that is, programs of which the code was not a public text, collaboratively developed and modified, but rather protected by single companies or designers.

The source code of software is in some ways its recipe, allowing a program to be reproduced. First written in a comprehensible programming language, the code is then compiled by a computer program that translates it into binary code (consisting of zeros and ones), which can only be understood by a computer. Open-source software is provided to users with its code, while proprietary software code remains a trade secret. Purchasing proprietary software does not in fact make the user its owner; the user only purchases the right to use the software for a fixed period. While the economic model for proprietary software is scarcity, open-source software operates on the principle of abundance. The more users study and scrutinize source code, the more errors will be found and addressed - what is referred to as Linus's Law.

While the Web is often praised for its ability to connect individuals, and even to 'free subjectivities' (Cardon, 2010), the open-source movement demonstrates that the Internet can also lead to the creation of true cooperatives, innovative and sustainable, based on shared values. Hackers tend to be the somewhat skewed public face of the ordinary, practical operations of the movement, which in Europe comprises several hundred organizations, and which hold many annual away from keyboard (AFK) meetings, public demonstrations and direct collaborations. In the hacker world, computer science students and professionals meet retired buffs, devotees and activists. Each finds his or her place and role according to their level of commitment and technical expertise. Not all members of this community share the same ideas, or the same motivations, but all are partners in the 'largest collaborative project in the history of humanity' (Torvalds, 2010). The enduring focus on technical matters, on minimal consensus and ethical fundamentals, along with the industry's dynamic economy, tend to keep tension and contradictions at a minimum.

Open source software has become a credible alternative to proprietary programs. Although Microsoft maintains an overwhelming share of the workstation market, open source software has cornered digital infrastructure (servers) and mobile telephones (in 2013, Android was the operating system on 75% of mobiles). Open source software is used by millions of users (Firefox, Open Office, Android, Apache) and in contracts to furnish ministries, cities, major firms, etc. The global open source market is worth a huge amount of money - €10 billion in Europe in 2010 (PAC, 2010) - and is growing each year (Benchmark 2). Red Hat, the first open source software company, has global revenues of more than a billion dollars. In 2011, France, the most rapidly evolving country in the world for free software, open source programs accounted for 6% of the total software and IT service market, approximately €2.5 billion (PAC, 2012), with considerable annual growth since 2007.

This trend has pushed the traditional mainstays of the software industry to re-examine their strategy, and these companies now hover between instilling fear in potential users, notably regarding legal security and professionalism - through a technique called Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) - and making more or less significant forays into the open source market. Microsoft has made several attempts by partially opening certain source codes; IBM has invested several billion euros in open source software since 2000, competing with Redmond Software and outsourcing part of its research and development; in 2008, Sun Microsystems purchased an open source competitor for one billion dollars; and Google, by basing its development strategy on open source, benefits from the work of thousands of volunteer developers.

This top-down market perspective should not obscure the possibilities open source offers to so-called ordinary users. Freed from licensing costs and supported by shared, socializedR&D, some programmers are able to partake of an extremely competitive market by offering services around one or several open source programs or by developing new software. Open source software allows smaller players, with more limited financial capacity, to enter the market; they also open new, intermediate or restricted markets, notably in home technology services, for which proprietary licence prices have kept profit margins low. Free software also broadens access to employment by providing a range of possible knowledge and the means to acquire those skills.

Open source software and sustainable development

The ease with which it has become possible to participate in software development, and the proximity of the open source world to the community and to popular education have pushed the open source movement since its inception to pay closer attention to the digital margins: the issue of access for individuals with barriers or handicaps, which has been the focus of specific developments, or translations into numerous and sometimes less common languages are two examples of this outreach. Ecological concerns have also proven compatible with open source issues, perhaps due to a shared suspicion of technological one-upmanship. Broad distributions of Linux ensured that this operating system could function on old machines, with few resources. Entire organizations are devoted to redistributing used computers with free software. Whether in more developed countries or in emerging economies, these tools afford lower-income groups access to information technology.

The open source movement has grown to truly global proportions; the community is particularly vibrant in Tunisia and more generally in BRICS group countries, in South America, India and South Africa, for instance (Benchmark 3). Yet while the skills and the software are freely available, it is extremely difficult to orchestrate spontaneous self-training for populations from regions without education systems or relatively professional infrastructure.

Open source software and security

Over 30 years, the now global open source community has successfully deployed cutting-edge expertise, ultimately resulting in universally accessible and adeptly wielded information technology tools. The movement today is facing a network that is subject to more control and surveillance then ever (whether by political or economic bodies), but remains one of the few civil and technical 'organizations' able to defend individual rights and freedoms on an international scale. While this defence can be manifested politically, the strengths of the open source movement are the development of digital security tools, the necessity of which has been amply demonstrated by the events of the Arab Spring and the Edward Snowden leaks (GPG, Tor, Cryptocat or Tox, Disconnect, Anonymox, HTTPS everywhere, Riseup, Owncloud, etc.).

In terms of digital security, opening up source codes leads to improved security, and at least greater transparency. Thanks to the recent revelations by Edward Snowden regarding PRISM, the American National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance system (only one among many such programs this administration uses to control the network of networks), there is now proof as to the existence of cookies and backdoors that are used in software and throughout networks, to provide sensitive information to corporations (such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon or Google) or governments (in this case the United States, but more than likely all the major industrialized states have developed their own means of digital data collection), and which allow direct access to individual computers. Whether their data is used for industrial espionage, political control, surveillance and repression of deviant users or to develop extremely detailed consumer profiles, ordinary Web users are beginning to realize the extent to which their online activity is examined, collected, analysed and sold. The myth of cyberspace, of the wild new electronic frontier, is the myth of impervious anonymity; the reality is the absolute opposite.

The protected source codes of proprietary software forces users to agree to relinquish their personal data, and prevents any possibility of controlling the type of information sent to corporations and authorities.


Protected by legal licences, supported by the dynamic economics of the information technology sector and driven by a complex and changing network that provides access to pertinent expertise, the open source software movement continues to ensure the democratization and openness of the digital world. Whether in robotics, in home automation, telephony or 3D printing, FLOSS is both experimenting with and defining the future of software.

Open source work on access and mastery has shifted with the times: from the development of personal computers to the design of programs that can be used and controlled universally, it would seem that the open source movement will move on to widespread access to security tools, the dissemination of digital culture, and the development of decentralized storage and services in keeping with the movement's principles of freedom and individual and collective control.

In response to the broad notion of cyberwar, the FLOSS movement will have to set a diametrically opposed course, for cyberpeace (Zimmerman, 2013).

Efficiency, collaboration and ethics: open source projects

The open source market, valued at approximately E 10 billion, is seeing considerable growth in Europe and particularly in France.
Show Media

The growing European open source market

The open source market, valued at approximately E 10 billion, is seeing considerable growth in Europe and particularly in France.
Show Media

Open source use around the world

The use of open source software varies considerably from one country to the next but is increasingly gaining ground, notably in less developed countries.
Show Media