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Feldman 1

Adam Feldman

Mrs. Nodler

English IV: Media Literacy I

20 December 2008

Disruptive Paradigms

Free and open source software continues to grow in popularity and deploy-

ment. Increasingly these alternative options are substituted for traditional ,

costly, proprietary options. Free and open source software is challenging the tra-

ditional business models of the software industry. At the same time, in a more

nascent stage, open source hardware is beginning to emerge. The open source

hardware movement is predicated on the same philosophy as the free and open

source software, and so will develop in a similar manner. The new movement to-

wards open hardware is analogous to the development of the open source soft-

ware ecosystem.

This essay uses a number of technical terms throughout that must be de-

fined for clarity. Unfortunately, the use of these terms in practice is extremely in-

consistent. A key distinction that must be made is one between the terms “free”

and “open,” or “gratis” and “libre.” “Open” is defined as “libre,” meaning that

whomever is using something described as “open” has the freedom or liberty to

do with it as they please. Here, “free” has two meanings. In general, it means

“gratis,” as in something being free of charge or at zero cost to whomever is bene-
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fitting from that thing. In this essay, it primarily is essentially a synonym to

“open.”

The acronym “FOSS” stands for “free and open-source software,” meaning

that the user is free to study and change the software’s design. A user can change

the software by editing its source code, and with open-source software the the

partial or complete source code 1 is generally available at no cost. “Free” here

means gratis. Some software is free but not open, and more rarely is software

open but not free. This essay focuses on the effects of openness; however, the

combination of free and open often produces a greater effect, as will be illustrated

below.

Similarly, the term “OSH” will be used here to refer to open source hard-

ware. The free has been dropped because unlike software, there is a cost associ-

ated with reproducing a physical object such as hardware. However, OSH designs

are often free as in libre, as will be discussed.

Before the FOSS movement can be discussed, one must understand its

philosophical origins. “Open content”–creative works that allow viewing and

copying by anyone–has existed for centuries in academia, whose culture often

promotes freely sharing information. An early example is The Royal Society in

England, whose members began reporting experiments in detail for the others to

1Text consisting of statements in the form of some computer programming language that a computer can
transform into instructions it can understand.
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criticize and improve upon. 2 Open content and free content are similar, except

free content generally additionally allows modification and re-distribution of the

modified version of the work. Open content advocates tend to support “some re-

strictions of use [such as not allowing commercial use], requirements to share

changes, and attribution to other authors of the work” while free content is free

from any restrictions. Pinning down a specific definition is difficult because of the

newness of these terms and the lack of broadly accepted definitions.3 This tradi-

tion of freedom continued as software grew in importance.

The FOSS movement grew out of the openness and cooperation of academic

research. Software sharing has existed for a long time–longer than Richard

Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, has been involved in

software. 4 Initially, in the nascent days of the software industry in the 1970s,

Stallman claims many computer users and companies distributed much of their

work for free (as in libre). Considering that many programmers hailed from aca-

demic research environments, the sharing of knowledge and information was a

fundamental piece of their career.5 “By the 1980s, almost all software was pro-

2“’Nullius in Verba’.” 2008. The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. 1
December 2008. <http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=6186>.
3“Open Source.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 26 November 2008. 28 November 2008.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source>.
4“Gnu Operating System.” 21 January 2008. The GNU Project. 6 December 2008
<http://www.gnu.org/>.
5See portions of this paper relating to the history of hardware for clarification on why these dates apply.
Summary: the dates refer to the PC and revolution, because with mainframes everything was proprietary
(and less so with the minicomputers).
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prietary [non-free], which means that it had owners who forbid and prevent co-

operation by users. This made the GNU Project necessary.”6

The GNU Project 7 was founded in 1983 by Stallman to support the develop-

ment of a free operating system as an alternative to the closed, proprietary sys-

tems that had become dominant. Stallman began by formally defining free soft-

ware as free as in libre, and by creating copyleft licenses to ensure that the source

code, software, and documentation remain free. A copyleft license is one that

uses the framework of copyright law to remove the limits on modifying and dis-

tributing a work that are normally imposed using copyright law so that the work

and any modifications are required to be free in perpetuity. The license promoted

by Stallman is the GPL, or GNU General Public License. It is a copyleft license.

In 1992, Linus Torvalds filled in the last remaining major piece by creating a

kernel for the system, the interface between pieces of software and the “metal,”

or hardware of the computer, and then licensing it under the GPL. 8 Today the

“GNU/Linux” operating system, or more commonly just “Linux,” enjoys consid-

erable success. It is used everywhere, from the servers that power the web to em-

bedded devices to airplanes to supercomputers. Its quality and cost have made it

attractive for consumers on desktop computers and users in developing coun-

6 ibid.
7 GNU stands for “GNU is not Unix,” a recursive acronym. GNU is the name of the operating system
Stallman worked to put together. The programs the GNU Project developed are generally combined with
the Linux kernel to make a useful operating system; however, the GNU project has also been developing
its own kernel, Hurd, but it isn’t very usable or widely used yet.
8“About Linus Torvalds.” 7 September 2007. Linux Online Inc. 1 December 2008.
<http://www.linux.org/info/linus.html>.
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tries. GNU/Linux’s philosophical roots have spawned a whole industry that ap-

pears to function in ways that contradict traditional economics: an industry

where the core product is given away for free (as in gratis), along with its designs

and source code.

Traditional software companies do not distribute their product as either free

or open source software. They develop software products and distribute them as

binaries, or software files that have already been compiled, or translated into ma-

chine code from its source code. Once a program is compiled, it is very difficult or

impossible to decompile software back into its source code. The companies re-

quire users to agree to a EULA, or End User License Agreement, before using the

program. The EULA is a contract that generally requires, among other things,

that the user not attempt to decompile the software back into its source code.

Proprietary software companies produce revenue by charging for both their

product, software, updates to the product, and services involving the product,

such as customization or support. 9 Traditional software companies include Mi-

crosoft, Adobe, Accenture, SAP, and Oracle.

For the software user, there are many issues with proprietary, closed source

software. These issues all stem from the source code being closed and non-free.10

Among other major issues for users, there is the problem of improvement.

9Cusumano, Michael A. The Business of Software: What Every Manager, Programmer, and Entrepre-
neur Must Know to Thrive and Survive in Good Times and Bad. Free Press, 2004. 24.
10See “Gnu Operating System.”
Richard Stallman has written extensively on this; his detailed arguments are available on GNU.org
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Namely, if a user wishes to change the software, be the change to fix a software

bug or add a new feature they want, the user has no freedom to do so. The user

depends on the company to make changes at its cost and schedule if the company

even chooses to fix the particular bug or add the particular feature. The company

has no motivation to make any change if it only benefits a small minority of its

customers. FOSS solves this by giving away the source code and having compa-

nies concentrate on the other half of the business model, providing services. In

general, the total cost of ownership is lower when using FOSS. This is because of

FOSS’s lack of licensing fees and because it generally has fewer code defects or

bugs. In general, a 20-40% savings over solutions such as Microsoft Windows

and Office is possible.11

Businesses seem to have trouble accepting the fact that it is possible to make

money while simultaneously giving away their products and the source code. In a

discussion of traditional software companies and their business models,

Cusmano makes it clear that these companies receive most of their revenue from

services, not products over the lifetime of a software product. As well, he de-

scribes how it is long-term services contracts that provide stability for businesses

during periods of economic downturn. 12 Thus, it is possible for a company to

prosper within the FOSS ecosystem. This is a fact that many businesses vehe-

Wheeler, David A. “Why Open Source Software / Free Software (Oss/Fs, Floss, Or Foss)? Look At the
11

Numbers!” 16 April 2007. 1 December 2008. <http://www.dwheeler.com/oss_fs_why.html>.
12 Cusumano, Michael A. 28.
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mently fight, as it is so contrary to how they have operated for the past thirty

years.

With a FOSS product, anyone with the necessary skills can make an im-

provement to a piece of software. If a person or company does not have the skills

to make that change, someone can be hired to do so. Collaborative communities

form around these products to support, improve and promote them. These com-

munities consist of more than programmers, but designers, testers, and users

who can all make contributions. As well, the community is more than individuals,

but businesses who use the extensibility and openness of FOSS to allow them to

provide support or niche customization. FOSS allows for more innovation be-

cause the economic competition changes from who can provide the lowest cost

software to who can provide the best software.113 FOSS is a better alternative to

proprietary software development, both for the user and the economy as a whole.

All parties benefit from both the gratis and libre nature of FOSS.

An exhaustive list of successful FOSS companies is unnecessary here, but

FOSS’s success is best understood through descriptions of its deployment.

IBM customizes FOSS as a part of its consulting business. Novell Inc. and

Red Hat Inc. provide support and services for particular versions of Linux that

they put together. MySQL (a company recently purchased by Sun Microsystems)

provides support and services for users of the database software MySQL. MySQL

13The Economics of Open Source Software Development. ed. Jürgen Bitzer and Philipp J.H. Schröder,
Elsevier Science, 2006.
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has 40% market share for all databases.14 50-60% of companies with web servers

use the Apache web server. 15 Thousands of consulting firms and independent

contractors and consultants use FOSS products to create solutions for their cus-

tomers. In short, examples of companies successfully basing their business model

off FOSS abound.

The companies mentioned above utilize many different business models to

take advantage of the benefits of FOSS. Among other business models, five in-

clude “dual licensing…consulting on [F]OSS…providing [free/]open software dis-

tributions and services…hybrid proprietary/open model–vertical development

with [F]OSS and…hybrid proprietary/open model–horizontal arrangements.”16

Dual licensing allows an established software organization to distribute its

software under an open license for nonprofit users while at the same time requir-

ing commercial users to pay a licensing fee. Paid users also tend to receive sup-

port services as well. A well known example is MySQL, which is licensed under

both the GPL and a commercial license. The community benefits from the open

and free GPL-licensed code while the company benefits from the communities

“Market Share.” 2008. MySQL AB. 7 December 2008.
14

<http://www.mysql.com/why-mysql/marketshare/>.

“November 2008 Web Server Survey.” November 2008. Netcraft Ltd. 9 December 2008.
15

<http://news.netcraft.com/archives/web_server_survey.html>.
16Deek, Fadi P., and James A. M. McHugh. Open Source: Technology and Policy. Cambridge University
Press, 2007. 272-279.
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innovations. Commercial companies benefit from an excellent database which is

allowed to be bundled with their proprietary applications. 17

Consulting and providing services are both options for companies to work

symbiotically with pre-established communities around FOSS software. Consult-

ants are often tasked with combining many off-the-self components into com-

plete systems on the LAMP stack. LAMP refers to combining a particular distri-

bution of the Linux operating system with the Apache web server, MySQL data-

base, and a programming language such as PHP or Python. Many FOSS products

are designed to be run on LAMP systems, such as the content management sys-

tems Drupal or Django that run PopSci.com and WashingtonPost.com. More and

more companies are using FOSS instead of commercial components. 18 Service

providers such as Red Hat or Novell perform the arduous task of integrating

FOSS components such as the Linux kernel, X Window System, and desktops

such as GNOME or KDE into a usable operating system. Both sell support serv-

ices for revenue as well as provide free distributions of the software.

Although it is implied, businesses also benefit greatly by utilizing FOSS in-

ternally in place of commercial systems. Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook among

others use FOSS almost exclusively to power their systems. All make extensive

use of the LAMP stock and software built on top of it. At the same time, all three

contribute improvements back to the FOSS communities that produced the soft-

17The GPL requires that any software that integrates code licensed under the GPL be licensed itself under
the GPL.
18 Deek, Fadi P., and James A. M. McHugh. 272-279.
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ware critical to their businesses. These three companies are examples of vertical

development with FOSS. Horizontal integration takes place when companies

such as IBM support FOSS because of its complementary role to their businesses.

Examples include IBM’s support of the Eclipse development environment. IBM

in particular spends hundreds of million, and sometimes over a billion, dollars a

year supporting FOSS. IBM likely does this because it hurts its competitor Micro-

soft when open standards overtake Microsoft’s closed ones as commoditized

software products are produced. 19

There is no reason why the general principles of FOSS cannot apply to OSH.

While there exist fundamental differences, the advantages to freeing hardware

designs are similar to those gained with opening up source code. The same con-

cepts that apply to opening up the source, or design, code of software can be ap-

plied to opening up the design of computer hardware or other physical objects.

Open source hardware is an extension of the concepts of free software to hard-

ware. With open source hardware, design information such as schematics, blue-

prints and bill of materials are released for anyone to view, modify, produce de-

vices from, and re-distribute in the free and open methods of the FOSS move-

ment. Often FOSS is used to design and/or control OSH.

The OSH movement is less organized and developed than the FOSS

movement, but its practitioners stretch back just as far in history. Its roots lie in

the same open academic traditions. In the mid to late 1970s, a group of computer

19 ibid.
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hobbyists met in a group known as the Homebrew Computer Club. Among the

now high-profile tech industry figures who attended were Steve Wozniak and

Steve Jobs, founders of Apple Inc. The Club freely traded information and ideas

related to bringing computing to the masses.

What must be kept in mind here is the industry was being reinvented as

computers went from mainframes that filled rooms to devices next to every desk.

Mainframes had always consisted of both proprietary hardware and software.

IBM changed the world when it turned loose its IBM PC. The IBM PC became

ubiquitous and commoditized over the years while IBM moved into consulting.

The PC was successful for two reasons. First, it was built from off-the-shelf com-

ponents instead of internally-developed and produced IBM pieces, allowing

faster and cheaper production. Second, it had an open architecture that allowed

any company to produce add-ons for it. The hardware freedom led to software

freedom being possible on these machines.

Traditional hardware business models are straightforward. Companies de-

sign, manufacture, and sell devices. Something that must be kept in mind is that

although no significant design documents are shared with users, because the de-

vice is physical its workings and design can be determined with varying degrees

of difficulty. As with proprietary software companies, any changes users are in-

terested in must be recommended to the manufacturer to decide if they are inter-

ested in making the change. 20 As well, it is difficult for users to make significant

20 Although some hardware can easily be physically modified, such as a bicycle, a microchip cannot be.
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or legal improvements to most devices because of the time required for and ne-

cessity of reverse engineering the device’s design. OSH solves all of this by apply-

ing the principles of copyleft to the hardware designs so that anyone may copy,

improve, and re-create and re-distribute the device.

The benefits of opening up the design may at first appear restricted to highly

technical users skilled in electronics. However, as projects whose aim is to bring

object fabrication into the home advance, a legal framework such as a copyleft

becomes desirable. One day projects such as the RepRap self-replicating 3D

printer and rapid prototyper will allow anyone to easily make any object out of

basic raw materials and parts. 21

Among possible business models for OSH, two stand out. The first is for the

individual or firm to use the OSH device to promote their expertise and to not

worry about selling the actual device. The advantage here is that if another can

manufacture the device cheaper, let them, because it results in the wider adop-

tion of the device. At the same time, users will still gather around the innovator ,

the inventor. The community that forms becomes the greatest asset. The second

is to sell the device and actively work to stay ahead of the competition, which is

sometimes easy because of the low quality of knockoff products.22 These models

are not mutually exclusive however.
21Bowyer, Adrian. “Wealth Without Money: The Background to the Bath Replicating Rapid Prototyper
Project.” 24 February 2006. RepRap.org. 1 December 2008.
<http://reprap.org/bin/view/Main/BackgroundPage>.
22Thompson, Clive. “Build it. Share it. Profit. Can Open Source Hardware Work?” 10 October 2008.
Wired Magazine. 1 December 2008.
<http://www.wired.com/techbiz/startups/magazine/16-11/ff_openmanufacturing>.
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Like FOSS, OSH can have a large effect on incumbent companies. In a Wired

article on OSH, Thompson shows this effect by example of a device used by mu-

seums to monitor environmental conditions:

"This is worth about $15 in parts," Abrams says, whistling as he pokes at
the tiny electronics board inside. "It has a really cheap low-end chip.
And they charge $400 for this? Someone is getting robbed." He tosses it
on the table. "You could sell it for $80."

Gibb gets a playful look in her eye. "I'm gonna do an open source ver-
sion of this thing," she says. "Wait a minute," I say. "That means any
museum will be able to take your free design and fabricate copies itself?
Or someone who isn't even an inventor—like me—could send your de-
sign to a Chinese factory, produce a couple of thousand devices for $20
apiece, and sell them to museums for $50?"

"Sure," she says, grinning.

I hear the sound of a thousand business models crumbling.

As with FOSS, OSH producers disrupt the established business models and

force innovation. Also, both FOSS and OSH accelerate the increasing commoditi-

zation of their respect industries. As products in both the hardware and software

industries are replaced by libre and in the case of software gratis, alternatives, the

fundamentals of the industries change to where any one product in a particular

category is not significantly different from another. Word processors are word

processors–it does not matter if you use OpenOffice, a FOSS competitor to Mi-

crosoft Office, or Microsoft Word, both are essentially the same except in cost–

and devices are devices–it does not matter if you buy a coffee mug or produce one

on your RepRap, except one is $1 and the other is $3. FOSS and OSH are both to-

tally disruptive technologies.
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A number of OSH projects exist. A notable one is the Arduino prototyping

platform, which aims to make it easy for anyone to create “interactive objects or

environments.” 23 Anyone can take the design for the basic self-contained com-

puter board, build it or buy it, then program it and add on to it so it can do any-

thing they want. Example projects include autopilots for unmanned model air-

craft and a device that notifies users via text messaging or email to water their

plants when the device senses the pot is getting dry.24 Other projects include eve-

rything from DJ devices, a cell phone, a MP3 player, prosthetics, a car, and opti-

cal networking devices. 25

The notable philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn discussed the incommen-

surability, or incompatibility or paradigms, or worldview consisting of certain

fundamental ideas. FOSS and OSH are disruptive paradigm shifts in the fields of

software and hardware that, given enough time and the development of rapid

prototyping devices, will change the face of our entire economies. At the same

time, the change is not revolutionary or violent; rather, it is gradual as these de-

velopment and design practices gain wider acceptance and spread in use, and the

technologies and FOSS and OSH products improve. In the shorter term, the in-

creasing commoditization of software by FOSS will result in increased innovation

in the industry. The OSH movement will continue developing into the future and

23 “Arduino Homepage.” 23 November 2008. Arduino. 3 December 2008. <http://www.arduino.cc/>.
24 Thompson, Clive.
25“Open Hardware.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 12 December 2008. 4 December 2008.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_hardware>.
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in the short term mature as the FOSS movement did, establishing its own licenses

and supporting organizations. The new movement towards open hardware is

analogous to the development of the open source software ecosystem.
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Works Cited

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<http://www.arduino.cc/>.

Bowyer, Adrian. “Wealth Without Money: The Background to the Bath Replicat-

ing Rapid Prototyper Project.” 24 February 2006. RepRap.org. 1 December

2008. <http://reprap.org/bin/view/Main/BackgroundPage>.

Cusumano, Michael A. The Business of Software: What Every Manager,

Programmer, and Entrepreneur Must Know to Thrive and Survive in

Good Times and Bad. Free Press, 2004.

Deek, Fadi P., and James A. M. McHugh. Open Source: Technology and Policy.

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<http://www.mysql.com/why-mysql/marketshare/>.
Feldman 17

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<http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=6186>.

“Open Hardware.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 12 December 2008. 4

December 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_hardware>.26

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26The use of Wikipedia as a source in this paper is justifiable for many reasons. Most importantly, there is
the lack of projects aside from Wikipedia documenting much of the FOSS and especially the OSH indus-
try. Reasons for this include that Wikipedia is the choice of these projects as a place to document their
history.
Feldman 18

The Economics of Open Source Software Development. ed. Jürgen Bitzer and

Philipp J.H. Schröder, Elsevier Science, 2006.

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