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Geek life

Open source is no longer just about software. Its now a way of life. Be it movies, music, hardware, gadgets, education, news, governance and even beer; everything around us is swaying to the symphony of the open source mantra
Siddharth Parwatay

Wikipedia prefers Ogg

An open source video codec that is supported natively by the latest version of Firefox

Open App builder

The Appcelerator Titanium open source platform allows developers to rapidly build apps for the iPhone and Android

hat started of as a revolution in software development, wherein the source code was bundled with software so as to enable modification and collaboration, has now evolved into a philosophy that pervades almost every aspect of our lives. From art to mass media, and from governance to even beer; free and open source culture is now a way of life. Where the traditional way of doing things was to closely guard the building blocks of a product, the new way is to open everything to the community, resulting in the obvious outcome collaboration leading to a much better product. But do too many cooks spoil the broth? No they dont. That axiom surely looses its potency when it comes to this emerging culture. The philosophy being applied to the non-software world has achieved tremendous success. It is quite clear that a few thousand heads are definitely better than one.

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34 Digit | August 2009 |

Sweet FM
An open source client for allows for much better functionality, such as station shufe, superior album art, and remote control support

Geek life

The origins
This new wave began sometime in the mid-80s when Richard Stallman quit his job at MIT and set up the Free Software Foundation. His belief was simple create high quality software that is freely available to everybody. But what was wrong with corporations making software back then? Commercial companies constrict their software with patents and copyrights and keep the source codethe original program code, a closely guarded secret. Even the processes and approaches to doing things were locked away, and many developers found themselves stifled and shackled. Software thus being created was not of the best possible quality and definitely poorer than what couldve been achieved though collaboration. There was no free flow of ideas, and if programmers had no way to learn from previously written code, the art of programming was likely to stagnate. Folklore attributes the turning point in this revolution to one fateful day when Stallman wanted to modify the source code of a printer to make it perform a specific function, but was denied the right to do so. In an interview he says, The issue with the printer was that I wanted to make it possible for the system to notify users when a job was printed, or if the printer was in trouble. That would have allowed people to go and collect their output only when it was complete, rather than having to guess. To do so, Stallman needed the printers source code, which was denied on the grounds that it was proprietary information making him very angry. Eventually, the internet ushered in the era of collaboration, sharing, the free flow of information and the modular approach to working on projects. Stallman, however, later became a proponent of the free software movement, that believes in complete freedom, while the culture that has evolved over time is about cultural openness rather than strictly open source.

that run on the open THE BIRTH OF THE PHILOSOPHY source mantra. Under With the sour incident in Stallmans life began the counter the provisions of the culture of the free and open source philosophy. To better Creative Commons articulate the philosophy, Stallman laid down the Four licence, creators can Freedoms of Free Software. These are: the freedom to run a put up their work on program as you wish; the freedom to study the source code a platter for anyone to and change it to do what you wish; the freedom to make copies comment on, improve, and to distribute them to others; and the freedom to publish or, modify and use, if they PRUH JHQHUDOO\ GLVWULEXWH PRGLHG YHUVLRQV so wish. at last count had some 2 billion pictures (in November 2007) and mainstream publications such as the New has been growing steadily since then at York Times picked up news trickling out the rate of about five million photos a day! of Iran via twitter. The news was modified, The better works amongst them (that are pieced together to join the dots and released into the public domain) are finding made into a meaningful picture of events, their way into popular culture to be forever before being published all this involves immortalised. The recent album cover of the fundamental tenets of open source a quite well known indi band, Bon Iver, collaboration, modification, and freedom. is an arresting picture of an object almost But for reasons that are somewhat completely submerged under thick snow. justified, bloggers and citizen journalists The image didnt come from one of those are not highly regarded as far as news great artists of yesteryear who designed the value is concerned. The concerns are cover art for albums like Dark Side of the mainly about accuracy of their sources. Moon. Instead it came from the flickr posts Yet, there are several benefits that greatly of Lauren Hudgins, a nondescript English outweigh these flaws. For instance, open teacher living in Japan. journalism will take up causes that news corporations will be extremely reluctant to tackle; vested interests and controversy Open source journalism always get in the way. But speaking of Instances of the culture can be found even quality there are web sites that get their in mass media. Earlier, the power to publish content from the open world but adhere was in the hands of a few. With platforms

Where the traditional way of doing things was to closely guard the building blocks to a product the new way is to open everything to the community, resulting in the obvious outcome collaboration leading to a much better product
such as blogs coming into existence, that allow for push button publishing, citizen journalism is on the rise. Now, these may not necessarily be open source in the literal sense; they are however tools that facilitate cultural openness and freedom. Tools such as these have helped deliver news at some very critical times. The source of such news is completely open, ie. it comes from the global collective. For instance,

to internationally accepted reporting standards. The content that they receive is vetted, edited and modified. Editorialised web sites like, backed by Harvard Law, is one such example. This phenomenon is also called crowdsourced journalism and is regarded as the leader in this field. NowPublic is a participatory news network which mobilizes an army of reporters to cover the events The culture of the masses that define our world. In twelve Perhaps Wikipedia is the PROSUMERISM short months, the company quintessential open philosophy has become one of the fastest project. This form of open An offshoot of the open source movement is the rise of the growing news organizations with philosophy later became known as prosumer. A prosumer can mean several things. One is a mixture thousands of reporters in over crowdsourcing. The collaboration of a professional and consumer. In this capacity the prosumer 140 countries, says the award success story is a massive endeavour is viewed as a segment by marketers and generally refers to a winning web site. Now it will driven by a legion of contributors discerning, or high-end consumer. The other meaning is derived take some time before such blogwho work for nothing more than IURP WKH PDVKXS RI D SURGXFHU DQG D FRQVXPHU 7KLV GHQLWLRQ LV based web sites become a mass a desire to disseminate accurate more in line with the open source philosophy. The prosumer thus is a consumer who takes part in the production of a product, culture since no single blog post information. The web site has close instead of the traditional passive role that he was expected to will get as much coverage as, say, to 10 million registered users, play earlier. With the rise of mechanisms for collecting consumer an article on the front page of many of whom not only use it as RSLQLRQV WKURXJK WKH LQWHUQHW FRQVXPHUV FDQ QRZ LQXHQFH a national daily. But its culture a resource, but also contribute the research and development (R&D) of a product. Companies driven by the masses. towards expanding it. pay special attention to the needs of customers and make Several companies have taken People are increasingly using the SURGXFWV WR W WKRVH QHHGV 7KLV SDUWLFLSDWLYH IRUP RI SURGXFW to crowdsourcing their research internet and contributing in their & development. Even the own little way to many such projects development is derived from the FOSS movement.

Digit | August 2009 | 35

Geek life

We want Firefox
Thats what employees from the US state department told Hillary Clinton. The browser is apparently approved by the entire intelligence community.

roughly 30 per cent who did pay, said suggestions forum at thinkdigit is a form theyd paid around $5, on average. One of crowdsourcing. At the same time there of the more lavish spenders, Nigel Regan, are specialised crowdsourcing communities donated 4.27, I reckon this is a shade such as and crowdspirit. more than they would take from a label on com. The former is a thinktank for a per unit sale. More to the point I wanted developing software products while the to reward the highly creative approach; next latter is involved in bringing to the market time Id pay less but ultimately would buy innovative real world electronics; all more music, he says on a blog. based on the collective intelligence The trend is catching on in of the crowd. For more India, too. Last month some of Other than idea generation, on how the open crowdsourcing has been used source philosophy is the guys from team digit went in rather interesting ways. gaining ground, read for a rock concert featuring Mother Jane. After a blitzkrieg, a research the article on the performance, the frontman company, called for amateur OScar project. Flip went on to tell the crowd to portfolio managers to register to page 40 visit the bands web site and and run a virtual fund with download their music. Pay us a million dollars. Eventually, it whatever you feel like, to support the mirrored the stock positions and band, he said. This is so much in contrast trades of the top hundred users on the site to just a few years ago when bands were into a real world fund with real money. crying their lungs out about piracy and the The fund has beaten the S&P 500 Index menace of downloaders. The paradigm shift in 8 out of 11 quarters since inception. is perhaps a result of the open mentality. Wikipedia is an excellent example where Another area of open source music, crowdsourcing has resulted in creation and more in line with OSS, is the remix culture. no small feat at that. The sea of knowledge Here people access music released under amassed by the crowdsourced power of a creative commons (CC) Wikipedia, exceeds any other man made licence and modify it to repository of information available to create mashups made from the public. Even social bookmarking like original productions of Digg or StumbleUpon is also a form of music. is a crowdsourcing that leads to discovery. collection of almost 20,000 such sound clips which may Open Music be remixed and used freely One of the trends weve seen in music is of under the free CC licence. bands giving away music for free, directly The clips are only sounds, from their web sites. The trend was started not songs. They may be by bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch those of natural origin such Nails when they began releasing albums as birds or frogs croaking, on the internet. The latest one to follow or electronic origin like suit is Coldplay with the release of its latest Dark side of phobos synthesised sound. A more album LeftRightLeftRightLeft, which we musical project is, where all gave out on last months DVD. Now this kinds of tracks are available to either listen phenomenon of artists giving away music is to or make new music from. certainly not open source in the strict sense, One of the most notable creations but rather a part of free culture, since the coming out of the remix culture songs cannot be modified and distributed and one that will be close to our geek further. Although free, the approach is, hearts is Dark Side of Phobos. Its an strangely enough, paying off! Radioheads album consisting of 23 tracks that are In Rainbows album, which was released rearrangements of tracks featured on digitally, went on to sell three million copies the original DooM game, remixed by the (digital and physical format sales). Of the OverClockedRemix DID YOU KNOW? community. The original music was a is a community of free, mixture of rock music legal and unlimited music, published and the creepy under Creative Commons licences. brand of music made Here you can download and listen to over 15,000 albums, all for free. It is probably the worlds by creator Robert largest collection of DRM-free music. Artists can directly upload Prince, which we their music to the website under the creative commons licence. now know so well as Another web site to help you navigate the world of free music is DooM style music. The website aims to lead readers to the best of The remixed album free or Creative Commons licensed Electronic Music on the web, in its current form spreading the word for greater musical freedom for both artists is free to distribute and listeners alike. and is the result of

the collaborative effort of 19 artists. Weve included the album in the June issue DVD. Check it out. tries to straddle the line between free and commercial music. The web site is like a record label itself that signs artists from all over. The model is very simple: You can listen to a song for free by simply streaming it. If you want to keep the song, you pay a suggested price. Still, the suggested price is only indicative. Youre free to pay anything, higher or lower.

Open movies
The world of motion pictures has always been dominated by big studios, because lets face it, to make blockbusters you need tons of moolah. Which small time amateur movie maker will have access to the resources that the big guys have? That is perhaps one of the reasons why an open source infusion was much needed in this domain as well. Take for example, Elephants Dream, an animated short film created entirely using open source software. Now, purists would have you believe that Elephants Dream is the one true open source movie, precisely because it was almost completely developed using open source software such as Blender, a 3D graphics suite. Well, it is surely an open movie, perhaps the first, but not for the reason cited. The more appropriate ground for it being open source has more to do with its collaborative element, modular approach towards workflow, and free release over the internet. The film reportedly brought together the talents of a team of artists from countries as diverse as Syria, Germany, Australia, Finland, and the Netherlands. In addition to the performances of the cast and creative efforts of the lead artists, Elephants Dream was a collaboration of hundreds of individuals across the world who contributed a variety of work such as programming additional functionality for Blender, creating textures used in some of the scenes, and providing international translations for the DVD release. The films main aim was to showcase the power of open source software, and in this case Blender, the films primary piece of software, got several features added to it during the films development. These included an integrated node-based compositor, hair and fur rendering, rewritten animation system and render pipeline, and many workflow tweaks and upgrades. Yet this is not the only open movie project, although it is the most famous.

36 Digit | August 2009 |

Google Reader Notier

A free and open source system tray, Notier tells you of unread items in the RSS feed of the reader.

Open source Symbian

The Symbian foundation recently released an open source software package, the rst in its plan to eventually make the entire operating system open source.

Geek life

THE BUNNY STORY the same gripe drove decisions regarding While Elephants Dream was a short people to come up with their beer with a strange film, Valkaama is a full feature film being Following the the concept of open name Blowfly. developed in Finland. Content for the movie release of Elephants cola. A cola for which has already been shot and subsequently Dream, the Blender the recipe is openly published on the projects home page. Mod away foundation released available for anyone Everyone is encouraged to contribute Perhaps the most a second animated to modify or improve. to the post-production process in order interesting field touched OP FDOOHG %LJ %XFN But the project started to complete the movie. The movie is by open source is Bunny and an open off, not as a backlash, near completion and the community is hardware, since its so game titled Yo against big cola but as currently working on the music score. The diametrically opposite Frankie. In the movie, a promotional tool for communitys work flow is managed quite to the cultures software bunny is harassed by three rodents (Frank, FOSS. The idea was well by constantly updating a list of work to origins. For long, Rinky and Gamera) who are bullies. After such a hit that the cola be done for the film. Currently, apart from hardware manufacturers a particularly dreadful event, Bunny sets by itself sold more the music score, there is some amount of have had those little out for revenge. The game too is based than 1,50,000 cans. compositing left according to the list. Any stickers across the on the universe created in the movie and The company backing takers? Community members discuss the seams of their products, follows the character of Frank. The Blender exalting the warning the project became work and ways to approach it in the forums. institute, that was instrumental in these more famous as a cola The Digital Tipping Point is another such do not open, warranty two projects, was created as a division of company than as a collaborative project. Its a documentary void if seal broken. Its WKH IRXQGDWLRQ WR VSHFLFDOO\ FUHDWH RSHQ company formed for about open source. What better subject quite clear that they FRQWHQW OPV DQG JDPHV the promotion of open matter to be showcased via an open movie, dont want you to fiddle source concepts. right? The raw footage for the film consists with their product Soon, open source tentacles extended of hours and hours of interviews. This or modify it in any way; even if youre further into the beverage kingdom and presents a really good opportunity for resourceful enough to modify it to make it entangled themselves on wannabe editors to snip it better. Thus enters open source hardware to Free Beer. Before you get into meaningful content. designed to be physically modified or excited the free here is like When the final product is reprogrammed to make it easy to install the one in Free Speech; not released, its bound to be a custom firmware and beer that you dont have to tight film, thanks to so many software to create entirely pay for. As they say, theres heads involved in the post new products. The way this no such thing as a free beer, production process. works is by the sharing but here at least the recipe is Open source cinema of schematics, hardware free! The concept came about also involves the remixing design, PCB layout data and when a group of students culture that is pretty the free release of any other from the IT University of common in music, and is information that will help Copenhagen decided to take catching up in the images/ further development, such licencing frameworks from pictures space. The idea as the bill of materials. The the digital world and apply is to create original clips idea behind this is the same them to an analogue, realof video and offer it to as with software; opening world product. The recipe the community to remix up development will see for Version 1 contained a and republish. Some of innovation in never before South American stimulant these mashups make for seen ways. that gives a caffeine hit to some interesting viewing. The spectrum that open source counter the drowsy effects However, for this trend hardware covers is huge. It includes small Elephants dream post of alcohol, or so the creators to catch on there are a few programmable gadgets, do-it-yourself kits, hope. The recipe is published under the hurdles. Video editing is not everybodys and a host of other modular devices. The Creative Commons licence, cup of tea and besides, meaningfully using field spans from machine which means that any canned clips requires quite a creative bent tools to robotics to wind brewing enthusiast can of mind. The hotspots for open cinema turbines. There is even this brew his or her own batch are,, open source chip-processor Release your own cinematic so long as the new recipe and Be sure to watch A architecture for graphics masterpieces into the open is published along with remix Manifesto 2.0 on opensourcecinema. cards and core logic design world. If you want to release the beer. Similar projects org an open source documentary about for CPU cores. Many of the creative bug in you, a good these projects have gone came about later; one was copyright and remix culture. Created over place to begin is makeinternettv. a Doppelbock (dark type a period of six years, the film features the on to great success, many org. There are other such sites beer) backed by flying dog collaborative remix work of hundreds of that offer tutorials on publishing have not seen the light of brewery (called the Open people. day, but all have given the video content online under a Source Beer Project), while community surrounding creative commons licence. As another one was backed by them a great deal of Eat, sleep, DRINK open source for publishing vehicles, you of course have YouTube, which Brewtopia. The Brewtopia learning. Right next to the open source kitchen has a lot of CC licensed material. project from Australia took Take the case of the sink (if ever there will be one), is the idea $QG WKHQ WKHUH DUH PRUH VSHFLF Open Graphics Project the open source concept for open source beverages. Now youve CC oriented video publishing even further by letting (OGP), which aims to made drinks at home, right? As children, websites such as, blip. customers own part of the design architectures and come summer, we all remember making tv and standards for graphics a cool batch of Rasna. But can you make company. They are even Check them out! cards which will be used Coke or Pepsi? Nope, you cant. Perhaps consulted on important


Digit | August 2009 | 37

Whats the FOSS about?

Geek life

The inaugural issue of the International Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Law Review launched recently. It will be a forum for discussions on issues regarding best practices in open source and FOSS implementation.

Traditionally, scientists have been known to be very secretive about their research until it is Discuss this article at finalised and published. But things are slowly changing curriculum). OSC signifies any online and many initiatives have sprung up that instructional resource that can be used mirror the open source way of doing for free, is free to distribute and can be things. There are many databases set up modified. The seminal work in this field that provide open access to the scientific dates back to 2003 with MIT starting the community and students alike, to be able OpenCourseWare project. This provided to access information for research. Why students with open access to class did the conservative scientific community that would earlier thrive on eureka syllabuses, and lecture notes amongst breakthroughs decide to go open? Perhaps other resources. Another project, known the telescoping as the Global Education and Learning DID YOU KNOW? nature of scientific Community, is busy bringing out online advancement in books and other curriculum material for There is another project called Open Beer Project, that basically todays era made students from kindergarten up to class facilitates meetings between geeks from all over the world over research stagnant 12. A similar project that has managed to a mug of beer. The concept, says the website (, is and there was no create over 10,000 pages of curriculum this: If you know you are going somewhere, you check if anyone other option than is being used successfully by a school you know from IRC lives there. If anyone whom you would care to meet lives there, arrange a meeting. When you get there, you to pool resources. district in Alaska. The same benefits of meet and drink beer in a joint appointed by the local geek. When it comes open source collaboration, are realised to publication of here content that is produced is of the and screens for added functionality. The scientific research, a notable project is the highest quality, up to date (obsolescence is open source hardware project is enabling Budapest Open Access Initiative (www. a major affliction for text books), and led a new generation of engineers to tap their So what kind of by a community of dedicated educators. creativity and build any type of device they material is available here? As the site Through the free and open source want, without having to solder, learn solid explains BOAI makes an explicit and philosophy, there has emerged what state electronics, or go to China as it says fundamental distinction between writings economists are beginning to call a new on its web site. Snap on gadget building that scientists and scholars do and do not segment of global public goods. According thats the concept. Arduino is similar openwish to give away for free. BOAI applies to them, even simple comments we make source physical computing platform with only to the former. The objective is that on YouTube, forums and message boards, a development environment for writing readers should not have to pay access tolls are part of the fabric of the global collective. software for the board. For more Those comments together make DIGITS OPEN SOURCE PROJECT details visit a product; they enhance the OpenMoko Smartphone is a original product and form an ,Q D UVW RI LWV NLQG SURMHFW 'LJLW SODQV WR FURZG VRXUFH LWV -DQXDU\ notable project aimed at building integral part of the sum total of Fast Track (FT) to our very vibrant and active community. The an open source smartphone human knowledge. In a world FT to Trouble Shooting Your PC, will be developed piece by that could rival the likes of the where there is growing distrust of piece, under the control of digit readers and forum community. iPhone. The project has run corporate entities and restrictive The community has been very active lately, especially in giving us a lot of constructive criticism for the Fast Track. So, what we into trouble recently thanks to IP rights, the ownership of JXUH LV LWV WLPH WR FRPH WRJHWKHU DQG EXLOG D EHWWHU SURGXFW the plummeting economy. The knowledge and how we use collaboratively. You get to create, collaborate, and control company backing the project had it will define the next era of everything from cover to the contents. Each and every one to hand over the entire project, development. Who knows, open who contributes meaningfully to the project (for instance with including the brand name, to the source may some day lead us to answering even a small trouble shooting query) will get a mention developer community, but it will a Utopian society of abundance, in the Fast Track. Project details will be released soon on www. still provide limited support. The freedom and liberty only OpenMoko phone is meant for envisaged by philosophers.

in OS Operating Systems and eventually morph into full-featured and competitive end-user graphics cards. The first board prototype dubbed OGD1, is an FPGA chip. Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) can have their circuit pattern altered by programming, much like a Flash memory chip. Thus the circuit itself is firmware. The trouble is that such a board will be very expensive. But once the chips are out, developers will be able to try out their existing 3D acceleration designs. Once a stable enough design is created and tested, the cards can be mass manufactured. The BUGlabs project is another interesting open source hardware platform. It can best be described as Lego for the serious geek. These are basically modular computing devices that can be programmed and attached to each other to make devices that perform specialised specific tasks. The main building block, or the central piece, comes with an ARM processor (530 MHz), memory (128 MB), a rechargeable battery and several ports where other bug devices can be attached. The device can then be modded to perform tasks by attaching modules; say a motion sensor module for some security purpose. The modules available from the company include GPS, camera,

a niche audience comprised of technology enthusiasts. All information relating to the project such as schematics and CAD files have been released into the public arena under open licences to be further modified and redistributed. The CEO of OpenMoko, Mr. Sean MossPultz has coined an interesting phrase for this phenomenon. He calls it social electronics an approach that bridges the gap between the developer community and consumers. The project has been quite successful, with multiple widget kits and UI interfaces already developed to run on the OpenMoko hardware.

to read them.- And though this project facilitates free access, scientists still retain copyrights, and citing references pointing to sources is important when using any of it. Then there is, that calls itself a social knowledge network. It allows registered users to exchange Grey Literature, which includes access to each others papers, idea outlines and slides.

Open source kitchen sink

Open source has reached so many different facets of life that experiments with the concept are taking place in almost every field. Theres open source education, wherein a category of community developed study material has evolved called OSC (open source

Open science

38 Digit | August 2009 |