Open source isn’t just for software anymore

Prefer using LibreOffice over Microsoft’s version, which will run you several hundred dollars more? Did you try jailbreaking your iOS device yet? Why should your life without proprietary constraints stop there? Go on and try eating some lightly steamed, homegrown Midnight Lightning zucchini from the public domain, or filling your domicile with some customizable, mix-and-match furniture components. The silos are coming down, and today, digital intellectual property is just the beginning.

Freedom of Ideas via Open Source

Although it wasn’t called “open source” until the late 1990s, the act of collaborative tinkering with digital technology gained momentum for decades prior. When large organizations first started needing computers, back in the years following World War II, the niche community of academics working on these solutions was so sparse that techies were expected to mess around under the hood. By the 1970s, software was becoming so mainstream that it was starting to be viewed as a commodity worthy of shrouding in mystery. Purist geeks weren’t pleased.

The “free software” movement that grew out of this backlash believed strongly that computers should enable cooperation between people, rather than the opposite. Why should we place our blind faith in the corporate world’s “magic black box“es? The movement’s key proponents, people like GNU pioneer Richard Stallman (pictured), believe that open source is both ethically superior and technically superior to proprietary software.

Richard Stallman

These same principles have recently been applied beyond the world of computer software. Sharing and freely distributing software makes for a world with better access to better computer programs, and the same is true for any type of innovation. Monopolies allow software companies to charge exorbitant prices for their products, and this is true in other industries as well. Why should you pay $35 for an outdated statistics textbook when you can download a better, open-source one for free and read it on your tablet, saving trees in the process?

In order to improve the quality of products, their prices and the variety available, a number of organizations and disruptive individuals have begun experimenting with extending the principles of open source to new industries. At Invoice Ninja, we’re big fans of this stuff. Here are some of our favorite trends in open-source products that go beyond software.

Open source textbooks

After rent and cost of living, textbooks are the biggest expense for college students. That may change soon, as universities such as University of Maryland and University of Washington experiment with using open source textbooks in their curricula. These textbooks are compiled from sources that are free, many of them in the public domain.

Non-profit groups such as CK-12 and the 20 Million Minds Foundation are producing open source textbooks, compiled from sources released under licenses that allow for free sharing, customization and distribution.

Open source seeds

What’s all the fuss over genetically modified organisms? Did you know that even gardening seeds are patented and legally protected from being used to breed other varieties? Aside from the frightening global biodiversity implications, proprietary crops severely limit farmers’ and gardeners’ ability to improve on the existing breeds, especially since the market is controlled by three major companies – Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont – who own about half of all commercial seeds and are responsible for most of the global food supply.

In an effort to enable more diversity in agriculture, the Open Source Seed Initiative seeks to restore open sharing amongst growers, keep seeds in the public domain and prevent them and their varieties from being patented in the future.

The movement is still small, but it’s already produced a growing selection of varieties for a few different crops. It is a first step toward a more open and diverse agriculture.

Open source furniture

Open source has reached home décor as well. French designer Philipe Starck has collaborated with a company called TOG to produce a number of fundamental design elements that anyone can mix and match to use as a basis for their own creative furniture pieces. Starck sees it as a win-win-win-win-win situation.

TOG features open-source designs from a number of big names in furniture design, and its website is a place for amateur and professional designers to share ideas.

Open source laptops

If software can be open source, why not hardware? Pioneering XBox hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang and Sean Cross, a fellow rogue engineer, have introduced an open-source portable computer called Novena. The project started as a hobby, but overwhelming positive responses convinced the developers to market the product with help from crowdfunders.

This computer can be easily opened for installation of whatever hardware components the consumer wants. Owners will modify or extend the hardware as they wish, and all of the documentation is readily available and free to download. The DIY-inspired product will ship with a screwdriver included, and its casing is spring-loaded to enable easy access to the guts. It comes with the Debian Linux operating system already installed, but the end user is invited to tinker with this too.

“Open hardware is about building communities around platforms,” Huang told the Embedded Systems Conference a few weeks ago, according to VentureBeat. “It’s a labor of love. If you use it, please contribute back to the community.”

This type of computer is considerably more work to set up and maintain than buying one “off the rack” but allows a technically minded consumer to create a dream computer with the exact specifications he or she wants. The Novena will be available for purchase as a laptop, desktop or standalone board.

The future of open source

If you’ve ditched the rat race and consider yourself a member of the independent workforce, then why should you shell out exorbitant fees just to let big business get their hands on your invoices? Will open source take over other aspects of our lives as well? Members of the open source community certainly hope so. Free sharing of ideas can help create better products, more knowledge and more creative solutions to problems. We may see more industries abandoning the proprietary approach and embracing open source, as innovators recognize its myriad benefits.