April 10, 2016

SCHULMAN | The Best Things in Life are Free

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Imagine if New York bagels weren’t scarce in Ithaca — no one would settle for powdered eggs on a mediocre CTB bagel ever again. Imagine if classes had more seats — that would certainly make this week’s course enroll easier. We imagine a world with less scarcity all the time. Other things, like the laws of physics, affect our lives. But we don’t usually imagine a world where the atomic weight of hydrogen were different — or at least, I’m not smart enough to imagine it. On the other hand, imagining a world without scarcity is easy, and scarcity has a huge effects on our lives.

The importance of abundant bagels, or seats in Wines isn’t so apparent. However, there are scarce resources that are incredibly important, like computers. These days computers touch everything: finance, medicine, education and government; the list goes on. Imagine how drastically different the world would be if computers were less scarce. In some ways, this thought experiment is becoming a reality.  A computer equivalent to your cellphone would’ve cost millions of dollars and filled a room 60 years ago. Today you can buy a computer for $30. For the most part, hardware no longer inhibits the scarcity of computers. We have more than enough — at least compared to the past.

On the other hand, software is still scarce — which is a problem because without software a computer is basically a paper weight. Yes, distributing software is nearly costless. However unlike hardware which involves costly manufacturing processes, the cost of making software consists almost completely of finding intelligent people to write it — and intelligent people are just as scarce as they’ve always been. Luckily, there’s a solution to this dilemma: open source. This idea isn’t new, but I think it’s really important so I wanted to write about it.

Open source software is software that is distributed freely. Now, this may sound like a terrible idea. People are altruistic — but only to a certain point. Why would people contribute to software for no reward? The key is that open source software is not only free, the process behind making it is transparent. You can change it. Open source projects start when people share code they wrote for their individual needs. Many times making this software publicly available is more cost effective than selling it. Since the source code is publically available, people can adapt the code, and fix problems as they arise.

Obviously, some projects fizzle out. But, some catch on. The most successful open source projects involve code that everyone needs and uses, like an operating system or a secure protocol for connecting computers. Many people rely on it, even if they don’t pay for it — especially because they don’t pay for it. If your open source software doesn’t work, you are in trouble. However, the beauty of open source software is that the implementation is transparent. You can fix problems as they arise or to meet your specific needs.

And, this system really works. Many open source projects are significantly better than alternatives that cost money. Of course, there’s Linux an open source operating system. Maybe you think that’s the thing hipsters install on their computers — and it is. But, it’s also the operating system every corporation has installed on their web servers. Linux is incredibly reliable. At this point, developing proprietary operating system would be more costly than building on top of Linux. As a result, Linux is free and well supported — even if it powers software and services that aren’t free. More importantly, the basis of encryption over the web, RSA, is open source. Not to mention, the protocol your computer uses to connect to the internet itself is open source.

Granted, using open source software is usually more involved. Open source is not for people who want to treat software like a black box — albeit a beautiful aluminum and glass black box (I’m looking at you Apple). Sometimes the black box is useful when projects don’t scale well from one person to another. However, in most cases the black box is not only limiting, it is dangerous. We trust so much of our lives on software. Relying on something you don’t understand has has large implications if it doesn’t work the way you expect. Open source projects give you access to everything under the hood but they aren’t necessarily developed with you in mind.

All this to say open source is really important and something you should look into. You probably use open source software, whether you realize it or not. You should get more. Open source has bigger implications than just producing free, useful software. Hardware is more available than ever, but software isn’t. Open source is an important step to unleashing the potential of computing. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking too it. Stay tuned alternating Mondays for more.

Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.