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Jun Iio

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Open Source Software as a Public Good

Jun Iio
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Information system design

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What is open source software (OSS)?

Without software, a computer is merely a box.
Software is becoming more and more important in our increasingly sophisticated information-based society.
Such software is built from source code edited by human beings.

Up until now, source code developed by companies has often been kept secret as intellectual property. However, types of software called free software (FS) or open source software (OSS) for which the source code is openly shared began to draw more attention entering the 2000s.

Accessibility to the source code is not the only characteristic of OSS.
With OSS, in addition to accessing the source code, it is also possible to modify the source code. Besides, even redistribution of the altered source code to third parties is permitted. These qualities of OSS have allowed for the bazaar development model in which developers from all over the world join forces in developing software via the Internet.

Much of this software is available for free because of the open redistribution and copying in this model. While the fact that it is free has contributed much to its spread, the major factor that has contributed to the spread of the OSS is the fact that engineers have been able to quickly try out source code and then have the freedom to make modifications and alterations.

Widely used OSS

Let’s look at the Linux operating system as a representative example of OSS. Linux has received overwhelming support as a platform for achieving various services provided over the Internet. There are also many software packages that are provided as OSS to serve as the middleware for databases and networks that run on operating systems.

The use of OSS is no longer limited to within data centers. Android, one of the two major rivals along with iPhone in the field of smartphones, has also been made based on Linux. In addition, information home electronic products and consumer electronics such as LCD TVs and hard disk recorders are embedded with OSS components. Unknowingly, OSS has come to be used in all types of fields, including car navigation systems and car dashboards.

Who should support OSS development?

How has OSS been developed to spread so widely, and by whom? How have developers of software that is free to use been compensated?

In many cases developers have become involved in OSS development based on the strong motivation of wanting to develop a certain kind of software. However, regardless of how much a developer may like a piece of software, one cannot live off of nothing.

For some successful OSS, there are support groups that provide assistance for the software development. These organizations in turn receive support for development through various methods that include donations and advertising revenues. A wide range of support is provided in addition to financial support, such as the provision of human resources and development equipment.

In addition, developmental support has also been facilitated by major companies. The previously-mentioned Linux OSS has grown as a result of much support from system integrators and hardware manufacturers.

The resemblance between scientific advancement and OSS development

Let’s look at scientific advancement here. The following rules apply to scientific advancement.

  1. Share and expand knowledge through the release of papers
  2. Verify theories through additional experimentation
  3. It is meaningless to repeat the same research

Let’s also reflect on the rules for OSS software development.

  1. Share and expand implementation through the release of source code
  2. Source code must operate correctly
  3. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel

What is meant by reinventing the wheel here is developing features that are the same as software that already exists.

Let’s now compare each of these points in A. and a., B. and b., and C. and c. It is apparent that there is an extremely close resemblance between OSS development based on source code and scientific advancement. Noticing this, it should also become apparent who should support OSS development going forward.

Up until now, the general public has indirectly benefited from the results of scientific advancement.
There are probably not many members of the general public that have made direct payments toward scientific advancement. This also applies for OS development. In other words, as mentioned above, compensation is paid indirectly for OSS development as well. The same structure can be seen as applying for support of the sciences.

Caution is needed to ensure that this structure stays in place in the future. While there has been a recent tendency to hold back on long-term investments and pursue profits over the near-term, just as R&D investments in the sciences should not be abstained from, the support of OSS development must continue in consideration of the key position that OSS now has in the IT industry.

Jun Iio
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Information system design
The author was born in Gifu Prefecture in 1970 and grew up in Nagano. He completed the master’s program from the Department of Mathematical Engineering and Information Physics, School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo in 1994 and also entered Mitsubishi Research Institute during that year. After serving as a Research Director there, he has served at his current position since 2013. He has served concurrently as Visiting Associate Professor at the International Center at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology since 2009. He has a PhD in engineering, is qualified as a Professional Engineer (information engineering), and is a Certified Human Centered Design Professional. His current fields of particular interests include the interactions between people and systems and the relationship between people and IT.