Many think the development of technology is reserved only for the super-intelligent, and that the average person cannot comprehend it.

This particular view of technology is a product of a closed-type environment, which hides key information related to the development of technology behind patents, copyrights and trademarks. While it’s debatable how intellectual property rights of inventors must be saved from abuse, traditional modes of doing so can block the flow of information in society.

This model is primarily driven by commercial interests— where key technological inventions sell at very high prices. But this model increases the divide between the ‘privileged’ class and the ‘under-privileged’ class. The division of the world between developed, developing and under-developed nations is primarily based on the level of technology they possess. This leads to prohibitively expensive technology and an increasing technological divide— we are producing a generation of technology users instead of technology developers.

Open source technologies are changing this picture. The term ‘open source’ refers to technology with a publicly accessible design that can be modified as desired without any restriction. This concept was initially created in the software field—when source codes were made publicly available with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software—but it has since expanded to other industries.

Providing Opportunity

The open source movement is now enabling the under-privileged class to work with tools that previously only the privileged class could access.

This gives everyone equal footing on development platforms. Products can now be chosen on their merit rather than because they are the only option. If we tread the path of open source diligently, the coming century has a lot of promise.

The R&D community has a particularly important role to play in this arena. We have the opportunity to change the very idea of technology as it is perceived by the average person.

First, we must mix education and research to a level that they do not distinguish themselves separately. This cannot be done by commercial products, as that will cause the already expensive education system to become even more expensive. Second, we must infuse open source products into education and accompanying research, so that we can make a society of developers instead of users. Third, we must infuse open source tools into research, so that the results can be experimented and verified by a large number of people.

Research institutions provide most of the man-power for technology-based industries. If we train them in open source usage, the acceptability of open source solutions in industry will also increase. This domino effect will ultimately benefit both industry (reduced cost of development) and customers (can customize their product). 

Linux—a computer operating system assembled under the model of free and open-source software development and distribution— has been one of the biggest contributors to open source. Within the scientific community it enabled students, educators and researchers to utilize their computers to any extent they wish. It’s not surprising that most of the tools on Linux were developed by educators and students. Its importance can be judged by the fact that it is now used to run much of the internet, both in terms of hardwar and, software.

Numerous derivatives sprouted from Linux as well. Research labs are increasingly shifting their workload to Linux-based systems because they can now freely customize the computing environments to their needs. Open source programming languages like python, R, and Julia have been successful because developers can customize to meet the needs of the community quickly.

Open Source for Hardware

What Linux did for software, Arduino and Raspberry Pi did for hardware. They enabled students, educators and researchers to easily prototype their circuits and share with the community. Like Linux, many derivatives and even new configurations sprouted from the idea of providing users an open source hardware platform. This enabled mass usage, which in turn lowered the prices. Schools, universities and research labs now use open source boards widely, since they enable a rich teaching-learning paradigm involving learning-by-doing. The internet has connected the development community and they can now share their codes, plans and execution strategies. The number of developers from developing and under-developed countries has been growing as a result.

Taking a cue from open source software and hardware, educators have open sourced their content as well. Numerous efforts to provide quality open source textbooks, video lectures and supplementary material has enabled students from under-privileged backgrounds to learn from state-of-the-art content. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was one of the first to do this when they open sourced their teaching content as MIT Open Course Ware (OCW). Now leading websites like Coursera and edX provide educational content from thousands of universities around the world.

Transforming Education and Research

Educators are benefiting from this movement too. They can now learn how to better teach the content in the best possible manner. Apart from just using open source projects, one university did something more. IIT-Bombay, in India, leads the effort to create a vibrant community of open source developers running the Free and Open Source Software for Education (FOSSEE) project. A textbook companion project has provided codes for hundreds of textbooks, which in turn, can be used by educators in their classroom. A cost effective 10-inch laptop which comes pre-installed with open source tools has been a star attraction for less fortunate sections of society. Spoken tutorials have helped train students, educators and researchers in mass numbers in open source technologies. Numerous other products like eSIM (for designing and simulating electronic circuits), OpenModelica (open source equivalent of Modelica), Sandhi (open source equivalent of LabVIEW) and OpenPLC are just a few open source technologies that are available.

Scientific journals have also embraced open source models. Most leading publishers give an option to make the articles and supplementary material open sourced (free to download and distribute without restrictions). This enables wider visibility, which in-turn increases the number of citations. Since citations have been the primary mode to evaluate a researcher, this option is gaining popularity.

The open source model is not anti-profit. Numerous companies including Red Hat, Ubuntu and Google prove that one can provide quality open source products and still make money by selling accompanying services. In fact, many companies are now shifting to an open source model for the development of their product, as it is a cost-effective and quick option. Even if components of a product are open sourced, it can still be patented if it is unique in nature of application of the patent. Most often, open sourced products make money via selling services and training. Open source products eventually become more reliable and secure than commercial counterparts because of the sheer number of volunteers who test and rectify bugs.

But open source is more than software and hardware. It’s an idea. And like any other idea, it is viral. It’s about being global. It’s about infusing democracy within the scientific community. It’s enabling users to become developers. It’s increasing the number of innovations and reducing the time to commercialize And it’s letting us revisit our society’s roots—as one that encourages the free flow of information and growth in a sustainable manner.

About the author:

Dr. Sandeep Nagar is Assistant Professor at GD Goenka University in India. He obtained a Ph.D in material science from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. In his academic career, he actively uses open-source tool chain for teaching and research efforts. He has authored four books on python, octave, SCILAB and MATLAB for learning these tools and comparing them before making a judgment of their usage. His research interest includes IoT, automation, smart grid and nanotechnology based products for green energy.