Open source is socialism at its best

Free and open are powerful concepts that can fix troubled areas like education and healthcare

Open source is a system where the line between a project's users and its owners blur. It is socialism at its best. Because it doesn't preclude commercialization, the 'open source' concept has the power to change other industries in dire need of changing, such as healthcare. We're already seeing it influence education.

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Open source has advanced at least one new business model entirely ... the idea of crowdsourcing. Through our computers, we can now farm out just about any soft task to many hands and get a result that is faster, and cheaper than hiring a group of people dedicated to the task.

Yet the power of open source comes from the fact that it is freely distributed. I've been thinking about this since a recent discussion I had with Nicolas Pujol, a former mySQL and Dell executive who has penned a book called, The Mind Share Market: The Power of an Alternative Currency. (He agreed to give away a handful of Kindle copies to Open Source Subnet readers. Details on this book giveaway are on the Open Source Subnet homepage.)

Between Pujol's ideas and my own pondering, I'd say that open/crowdsourced models create two tiers of value: free and commercial. It has a third influence, too. It forces non-open products to imitate the free tier by offering a "freemium" tier of their own.

Free: Creator offers it with no strings attached. You can typically contribute to the project, or at least modify it and control how it's used in your world. No one is on the hook to help you. Most of the tools that fill sourceforges fall into this category. Developers have no plans for launching a business -- they simply want to share the cool thing they created.

New commercial: Product or service is valuable enough to you that you agree to pay its creators, or a third-party, for a high-level of support. Your right to modify it for your own use is unrestricted. Red Hat, mySQL are examples.

Freemium: You use the product for free and the product's owners agree to support/maintain it for you, fixing bugs and adding new features. You agree to allow advertisers to reach you though the product may be closed, giving you no rights at all to modify or control it. Web sites for newspapers and magazines, Google/search engines, Facebook have all established themselves with this model.

Traditional commercial: You pay for the product and owners maintain it. You can often modify its use in your environment, but have no access/control over the core of the product and must wait for the vendor to perform fixes/add new features.

Because of the power of "free" open source has forced closed, traditional commercial entities into not only offering products for no cost, but in offering really good, useful services for 'free" to users. Though Microsoft has always given away loads of free software these were previously mostly add-ons for its products. Would Microsoft have ever created fully free online versions of its Office apps without AJAX-based Google Docs and OfficeOrg? Certainly not.

Pujol contends that "free" is starting to revolutionize other hard-up areas such as education. He offers the example of Yale University. If you want to graduate from Yale, you have to pay (a lot). But Yale has released an open source version of itself Yale Open Classes. "Anyone on planet can get education from Yale if they have a computer," says Pujol. Classes are on major topics such as astronomy, biomedical engineering, chemistry, classics, English, history, Music, philosophy and more. Yale Open Classes is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Along those lines is Curriki, the pet project of former Sun CEO, Scott McNealy. It's an online repository of freely available, fully vetted educational materials for teachers and students, with some social networking thrown in. (See story: Curriki: Bringing the open source model to education.)

Then there's Open High, a high school that uses only open-source education materials and as much open source technology as it can find to do the job.

Pujol would like to see the same type of socialism-at-its-best movement occur in healthcare. "If healthcare applied the methods of the tech industry, where there was data sharing and open source, we'd see a massive reduction in deficit ... vaccines and medications for 80% of diseases could be made at much cheaper costs," he says.

The idea is not to simply give everything away for free, but to shift dollars from mass marketing to offering free items and let these serve as a company's advertising. Instead of spending $600 billion annually in advertising to get people to buy products, that money could go into solving new problems and creating a free or freemium version of the product/service, while open-source/crowdsourcing can help keep costs down for all.

"Engineers are the new marketers," he says.

I'm not in favor of killing the advertising market, as it pays my salary. However, I do see Pujol's point that the $600 billion could be better spent by making ads perform a service for the reader/viewer/listener. An ad that says, "buy me" serves only the advertiser. A context-aware ad integrated into a social media platform, like Facebook, serves both. An ad with a barcode for a discount coupon is better than one that says "Eat here." One that is personalized to my town like Groupon and Living Social, is even better.

One that solves a real problem for me, such as giving me free access to food, car maintenance, vaccines, unbiased comparative purchasing information, news and new ideas, and if it also lets me modify it -- that would be the best sales tactic of all.

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