Get them while they’re young

The youth ripple effect in open source

Ashlee Vance recently wrote a good piece in the New York Times that touched on a concept well-known to every major company catering to consumers or other mass markets: Try to get them when they're young.

Vance's article talks about Microsoft's struggles to attract consumers and software developers, making it hard for the software giant to keep current with gadget designs and business software, among other things. He quotes Bob Muglia, the president of Microsoft's business software group, who sums it up as "We did not get access to kids as they were going through college. And then, when people, particularly younger people, wanted to build a start-up, and they were generally under-capitalized, the idea of buying Microsoft software was a really problematic idea for them."

McDonald's, Coca-Cola and open source have something in common: their ability to reach people while they're young and are developing their habits. The difference is that McDonald's and Coca-Cola did it by design. Open source fell into it.

Almost as a side effect, open source has been addressing a younger audience. The nature of open source software-it's free, it's available, it's flexible-lends itself to being used by people, especially students, who are young and don't have much money.

This contributes to the ripple effect that happens with open source. The software might not always be the best quality, but it works well enough for students and is the right price-free. As students are using the open source software, they're learning and are finding things to improve with it, so they are contributing some better code and are improving the software along the way. They make the software better, and it's still free. The ripple effect continues. Some open source is becoming as good as or better than its commercial counterparts, like the Lucene project we're associated with.

Designing software today is a lot cheaper and can be done at very low cost because, before open source, you had to buy various software packages or worse, some people pirated them. You had to buy and invest in some fairly costly software tools and environments. Open source now allows you to design a good application fairly quickly without all those initial costs.

Of course, the biggest drawback of this free software is that you use it at your own risk. A new open source project that has just been introduced is probably not the best yet. If you have a problem, it's not necessarily going to be resolved. That's why we must have pioneers who take the risk of using it, some of whom are people who don't have many options, like students.

As time progresses, these pioneers will use the software and make it better, which makes it more appealing to a wider audience, and that audience becomes wider and wider as the software improves and the risk of using it is reduced. They also learn how to thrive within the open source ecosystem, so that when they graduate to paying jobs -either as entrepreneurs or employees -- they take those open source skills with them. 

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