Whenever people talk about affordable websites, an argument over which platform or programming language is better is not far behind, and close behind every one of those arguments is whether or not free and open products can survive. It’s unfortunate we in the development industry have to continue to hear the skepticism of the success or continuation of free and open products, because it’s an argument that has been lost countless times.
What does that have to with Communism?
In 1516 a philosopher by the name of Thomas Moore made one of the most profound and influential thought experiments in human history in a novel that has come to be called Utopia. Utopia has become a word unto itself, meaning a perfect society, but in the 16th century it was merely the name of the fictitious country in Thomas Moore’s novel derived from two Greek words to mean “no-place-land.” In this hypothetical perfect society, there was no money, no possessions, and every citizen contributed and shared freely. This is considered by many the birth of Communism: no money, people just work to contribute to the community. This dream brings to mind another common usage of the word Utopia to describe something as a pipe dream. Even Moore himself has admitted that the realities of human nature make such a community impossible.
With this context in mind, what sort of adult mind would imagine that there could be meaningful work done that wasn’t possessed, wasn’t profited by, and was shared freely? Surely this was an Utopian pipe dream. One such person was Richard Stallman who started the GNU project to which much thanks is due for a lasting, global drive to make, share, and release free software to anyone. This drive is the open source movement.
So why has open source won the argument?
It turns out Richard Stallman wasn’t the only person that didn’t think digital Utopia was a pipe dream. There are critics to this day that argue free, open source technologies can’t compete with proprietary corporate products. A good example is C# versus PHP. Even after the vast success in the open source movement some critics still argue along the lines that C# is going to be a more developed and superior language than PHP soon, if it isn’t already, because someone is making money off of it and much of the technology is owned by a large corporation like Microsoft. Honestly, if I didn’t know any better, I’d imagine the same thing. It’s hard to imagine someone wanting to work on something that they don’t get any money for. However, we’ve seen this time and time again simply isn’t true. Take Linux, Firefox, MySQL, Ruby, Perl, and even some of the tools used by NASA as examples. People continue to contribute to open source projects in droves, and these projects don’t have to find these people, organize them, or pay them. People just use these free products, and if they need it to do something new, they improve it.
Every few months since I started developing PHP in 2007 I’ve had someone explain to me that PHP is dying in a condescending tone as if to suggest I was a naïve child subscribing to pipe dream notions of freedom. Many didn’t think PHP would become fully object oriented, would have threading, or would be compilable. Many thought it was a fad, and yet to this day it’s the most popular language to write computer code for websites. PHP and the many open source technologies developed with it have made it possible for many great products to be developed and shared with the world, such as Lexy Sites, a cheap hosting solution that’s able to offer and improve upon dozens of features thanks to open sourcing. The development of the PHP language hasn’t slowed down, and the products developed using PHP have only continued to rise and improve with no signs of either petering off.
I’m not saying that every single open sourced product is superior to a closed source product, or that you should never choose a closed source product. Just that open source has proven itself time and time again over the last 30 years to be a successful and sustainable model. Whether or not people can work without pay and freely share everything they need, we may never know. But Thomas Moore’s pipe dream Utopia has come to fruition in cyberspace, and despite any cynics hailing the contrary, it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time in the future.
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