Open-source my life

December 22, 2008

Not so long ago, much value was placed on keeping information private. For some things, it’s still a good idea: pictures of your kids, your social security number, what you’re buying your spouse for their birthday. Yet, web 2.0 communities like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and even WordPress thrive on people sharing tons of information about themselves online. The more information, the better. Preemptively answer, “How was your weekend?” with a few pictures and comments for your closest 200 friends. Everyone is a stalker, and based on the popularity of these communities, they love it. But, online communities are more than just cute pictures of your new puppy.

Software applications used to be developed behind closed doors and released with great fan-fare. Today, although its source-code is freely available online, the most popular internet browser is FireFox, a free, open-source application developed by independent programmers around the world. Yes, even with open access to its most formidable competitor’s code and tons of cash, Microsoft still can’t innovate a more popular product with Internet Explorer. Instead, a security flaw appears to be pushing customers away. And, the success of open-source software has been broadened to other venues.

MIT, Yale, UC Berkley, and Stanford all have two things in common: they are all Top 25 nationally ranked universities, and you can download thousands of their course offerings absolutely free. You can brush up on your Linear Algebra at MIT via streaming video, or you can podcast mp3’s from UC Berkley about the mating habits of a manta shrimp. What these universities grew to understand is that the value they offer is in the diploma, not the information. An MIT graduate hangs their diploma up to certify that according to MIT’s high standards, they learned everything they need to know to qualify as a geek (excuse me, “Electrical Engineer”). That degree might cost a pretty penny, but the information itself was among the stacks  in most public libraries.

If we haven’t yet fully understood our value, perhaps we’re selling ourselves short. If your value is quality or proven expertise, how much of an advantage is secrecy? For example, I once met a contract manufacturer specializing in thermoformed plastic that regularly provides a fairly comprehensive primer on designing parts for thermoforming.  Sure, he could try to sell you the service of optimizing your parts for you, but he’s instead giving you the knowledge to design the part yourself. If you can design a good thermoformed part, you might come back to him for manufacture, impressed by his expertise. Plus, it’s faster and cheaper for him to tool a part that’s been designed well, which makes him look better in the end.

Look around, consider your own business. Maybe you have some capital hidden away in your vault.



  1. people love working in community, do they not? We love being a “part” of the solution or connecting with someone who can be this to us.

  2. @Evan,
    I agree. Technology enables us to be a part of many communities, reaching across geography, economy, and even time (in a way). We can offer ourselves and our experience to so many more people and find that single person that might truly benefit from something you might have never realized was valuable.

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