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What's the meaning of "Open Source" for the man in the street?

Posted by fabriziogiudici on June 29, 2010 at 2:53 AM PDT

In the recent weeks I've been surprised by how I received related inputs, from different sources and their perspectives, about the same problem. For instance, two weeks ago, I read an interview by Simon Phipps about the future of OSI an I was hit by this passage:

increasing consumer awareness of open source and the four freedoms (beyond the code and the geeks);

Exactly the same day (cool) I was asked by a potential user about blueBill Mobile:

I'm very interested if this [blueBill Mobile] becomes something like the Collins eGuide, it's because of that I haven't switched over to Android yet.

The latter question was in response to my announcement of the next version of blueBill Mobile to start supporting multi-medial fact sheets in addition to the observation recording features.

For the record, Collins is a reputable publisher in the world of ornithologists and sets a standard in field guides for learning about and identifying birds (I myself, as many other birdwatchers, have practiced also on the paper books published by Collins). The eGuide is the electronic version of their books, and there are a number of similar products for various platforms (iBird is one of the most popular, also thanks to the fact that it's featured on the Apple ads for the iPhone).

This is an interesting question. This class of application needs two things: good computer technology and good reference data. For the former thing, I suppose I'm qualified; for the latter, I can't compare to a standard publisher such as Collins that has accumulated for years data and media of excellent quality. The approach of blueBill Mobile is clearly different: open and collaborative, it aims at aggregating various quality data available on the web. “Quality” and “web” are not necessarily friends; for instance, there could be huge quantities of bird media available on Flickr or YouTube, but how can you guarantee they are properly associated with the right metadata? I mean, is that photo by John Doe really depicting a Curlew Sandpiper or John made a gross identification mistake? BTW is John an expert or a rookie? Consider that identifying some birds is so challenging that on specialized forums there are often long debates - often leading to no conclusion - yes, just like in our world we often discuss about NetBeans vs Eclipse or Java vs .NET. Even Wikipedia is not considered to be a quality resource for birding by many expert ornithologists (well, no big surprise or me).

Fortunately, there are really some excellent resources with vetted data, provided by various global and local birding associations that have got a reputation. They can be complementary to traditional guides, and even provide more value than those. The simple solution for blueBill Mobile is to aggregate what is available (and compatible in its license) and provide the user with the source of the datum. Then it's up to him to choose what he reputes valuable. For members of a birding association, it's quite natural to assume that the association is reputable.

Now, all this stuff should make sense to us, computer specialists, as it's part of the collaborative web debate that has been going on for years. You shouldn't be surprised to read about these topics in a blog that often talks about FLOSS and RDF technologies (and, if a few legal things go fine, in the next days I could pass the border and move on from mere RDF to truly Semantic Web - crossing fingers...). In the end, these are common things in the cultural background of computer specialists.

But what about the man in the street? The typical user of iPhone/iPad and their Android counterparts, according to the marketing model we've been presented with, will be less and less acquainted to the traditional computing world, indeed having the first touch with computer technology right with his smartphone. It's a brave new world where FLOSS and openness are all but known values, indeed they are probably completely unknown. The major players in the field, such as Apple, Twitter, FaceBook, aren't open by most senses, Google being the exception. And they are the players that are going to define the next decades computing culture. Some obvious good qualities of FLOSS, such as “everybody can contribute code” and “it is free as free beer” are completely irrelevant (the former) for the man in the street and could even be badly perceived (the latter: how can be comparable a product that costs zero with competitors that are quite expensive?). Figure out how the "properly-freedom-related" qualities, which are subtler, can be perceived. That's why that “beyond code and geeks” by Simon is important.

Well, I've been trying to write a complete answer for that potential user of blueBill Mobile to explain these core principles of my application, but so far I've been completely incapable to formulate my ideas with a good language - I mean, I find myself constantly referring, implicitly or explicitly, to my computer-professional background. It's really a challenge.

What do you think? Do you have any suggestion, or pointers to useful stuff in this field?


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Good questions; so I made a related poll

Very interesting questions. I made a poll related to this. We'll see what the community thinks about the average non-programmers view of Open Source Software:

What does the average non-programmer think about Open Source Software?