Blockchain was not the first digital movement with lofty ideals. What is open source's, a predecessor in democratic knowledge sharing, role for blockchain?
Open source software (OSS) can be computer programmes, applications, tools, and platforms, among others. OSS differs from source code that is owned by a single company. In these cases, the company maintains exclusive control over the code. Only members of the organisation have access to it, and generally, employed developers take on coding tasks. This kind of software is “proprietary” or “closed source” software. Nobody is allowed to play around with or modify it without express permission from the company. Employees agree to not copy or modify the code by signing licenses displayed the first time you run them.
Open source projects are different, though. Their creators share the source code publicly with anybody who would like to see the code, learn from it, or even build based on it. Most open source software still requires agreements for use, but the stipulations are drastically different. Open source software’s license generally meets these criteria:
1. It is available in source code form (without charge or at cost).
2. Open source code may be modified and redistributed without additional permission.
3. Finally, other criteria may apply to its use and redistribution.
Open source licenses determine how developers may use and modify the code. The license must allow modifications and derived works. However, derivative software must often be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.
The free software movement gained traction after the creation of the GNU project — an operating system with 100% free software. It was launched in 1983 by Richard Stallman, but developed by many people working together for the good of all software users.
Many computers still run a modified version of this system every day. Some tech giants, such as Google or Facebook, are even powered by it — using the free operating system GNU/Linux. For instance, when you interact with Chromebooks, Android devices, and even Amazon Web Services, you are using Linux.
Software has seen rapid evolution and adoption, in great part, thanks to free software activism. Linux, unlike Windows, is not owned by a big corporation. Instead, it is free to use, and the result of thousands of developers’ collaborative efforts. This is the point of open source software — a community of developers leveraging free source code to learn, improve, modify, add, or build new open codebases to create new apps and platforms.
Sharing knowledge is essential in many fields, and has enabled the rapid development of computer science. Richard Stallman, back in the 80s, was concerned by the shift in universities from the principle of scientific cooperation to ones that made them greater profits. The programmer activist couldn’t believe how any useful programme written at SAIL, MIT, CMU, etc. wasn’t shared at the time. Universities started acting like private software labs. Stallman not only wanted to share, he also defended why we should share:
‘We would get more done with the same amount of work, if artificial obstacles were removed. And we would feel more in harmony with everyone else’.
What started as an idealised dream, became true. A survey conducted in 2020 by Red Hat with 1,250 IT leaders worldwide, found that 79% of respondents expected their organisation would increase use of enterprise open source software for emerging technologies over the next two years.
For instance, if it weren’t for Ethereum’s open source software, complex decentralised applications would have evolved at a slower pace. Many would not exist yet. This is even more poignant for blockchain, as it is fairly new, and therefore has a sharper learning curve for developers. However, it also has greater room for innovation at this nascent stage.
Blockchain developers use this open source code, learn from it, contribute to it, and even build on the Ethereum source code to create new customised use cases. The so-called ‘coopetition’ spirit — of cooperation, even between competitors — that exists in open source blockchain communities, hastens the maturity of the technology and reduces vendor lock-in.
Most blockchain technology is founded on the principle of being open and accessible to all, as a shared and immutable ledger for peer-to-peer transactions. However, it may not technically be open source. This is uncommon, though, as the open source culture aligns very well with the blockchain space. Both embody the concept of ‘no central authority’ and limited gatekeepers.
Bitcoin, the first blockchain, was released as an open-source project in January 2009. This gave burgeoning blockchain developers access to the source code. One of the most controversial elements is the Proof-of-Work consensus, due to its high energy demands. Back in 2010, realising that few of these elements could be tweaked, the community of blockchain developers aggregated around Bitcoin started experimenting. This was how new forks and blockchains began to emerge, trying to address different user needs. Now, several different consensus mechanisms are in play, with Proof-of-Stake being the most prominent.
Blockchain technology is at its historic peak. Beyond the potential that this emerging technology has, the open source spirit embraced by the blockchain community facilitated rapid innovation and adoption. This enhanced the uses of the technology and created new disruptive implementations beyond trading.
The use and importance of the type of collaboration open source fosters is something that blockchain developers and enterprises perfectly understood. Even so, although free code is key to foster new decentralised applications, especially quickly, it is not enough to grow the space at scale.
Further technical developments as well as standards and clear guidelines are key to build a solid foundation for adoption, scalability, and interoperability.