Free and open source software has literally helped accelerate growth and innovation in the global economy. Moreover, it has done so at an increasing rate as software becomes embedded in everything that we do (and is produced).
Open source software refers to software in which the underlying source code is available to see, i.e. is open. The free part refers to the licenses that accompany the software that enable anyone to freely use, adapt and build upon them. It’s free as in speech, not as in free beer (although most of this software is free in the upfront cost component as well).
To illustrate why these properties are so important, take my company (DuckDuckGo) as an example. DuckDuckGo is essentially built on top of (and with) free and open source software. I use the FreeBSD operating system; I code in the Perl programming language; I use the nginx Web server to serve pages to users; I use the PostgreSQL & Solr databases to store data. All of these pieces of software are used at no cost to me or my company.
What this means is I can build my company much cheaper than would be the case without this software, which has gotten better and better over time. In fact, DuckDuckGo is self-funded. And I’m not alone. There is a whole crop of startups that can be founded with little, to no, funding because this software exists. That means more companies are getting started, which means more innovation and, in turn, accelerated growth.
Of course, this all begs the question why and how this software is being created in the first place. There is a core group of people that believe in this cause who spend their free time making free and open source software. Then there is a larger group of people like me who use the software and occasionally submit patches, bug reports, and small programs that help this core group.
It’s a community. And it’s a community that has a large return on investment. This is why I’ve committed to giving away 10 percent of our income to free and open source software projects. It’s a recognition of the contribution it has given to me and my company. So next time you evaluate software, I’d look for open source alternatives, which at this point may actually be better!