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The term ‘open source’ comes from computer programming. It refers to a computer program that isn’t owned by any company and is freely available to the general public. Microsoft Word, by contrast, is ‘closed source’ — the Microsoft Corporation owns the code for its software and will never make it available or give it away for free.

A little-known program called Open Office is a freely available alternative to Microsoft Office with many of the same features. A loose group of programmers around the world created Open Office and constantly tinkers with it to make it better. They do this for free with no benefit besides the pleasure of providing a useful service for anonymous users.

The motivation for developing open-source software can be puzzling, but they are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Many phone users, for instance, opt for closed-source versions of Apple iPhones or BlackBerries. However, people using Samsung and other devices are running an open-source operating system — Android. (Google leads the programming effort, but doesn’t own the source code.)

Phones running Android operating systems tend to be cheaper because no money must be earmarked for the development costs. Of course, many people are quite happy to pay a little more for the features of closed-source iPhones and BlackBerries.

Freedom to innovate

But increasingly, both BlackBerry and the Apple iPhone flirt with open-sourced systems — allowing independent programmers leeway to produce apps for their closed-source platforms. In fact, in many other areas open-source alternatives are increasingly embraced.

Wikipedia, for instance, continues to grow in popularity while Encyclopedia Britannica recently announced the end of its print edition. The open-source Wikipedia allows users to modify any entry, but a team of editorial volunteers tends to keep material fairly accurate and well-balanced.

Only the editors of the closed-source Encyclopedia Britannica can make changes to their entries, meaning they should be more accurate. However, some research has found that Wikipedia and the encyclopedia both contained roughly the same amount of erroneous material. While it does have some drawbacks, Wikipedia is praised for the speed with which it updates information as well as its insistence on the verification of information.

Websites such as YouTube and Digg (which allows users to rate the value of new stories) represent open-source versions of television networks and newspapers. While a select few gatekeepers once made decisions about what to air or publish, these sites and many others now allow users to collectively make the decisions. The impact of these open-source sites on ‘traditional media’ cannot be understated.

Online alternatives

Many prestigious universities are now promoting open-source research. Academics are avoiding the costly peer-reviewed journals where research is kept behind a paywall in favour or free, online alternatives. The move will help equalise research globally, allowing poorer nations to have access to the same information as richer countries.

While some may debate whether open-source or closed-source systems are more beneficial, the road of history appears to be leading steadily toward a more open-sourced vision. The benefits of an open-sourced systems include an increased acceptance of new ideas and a quicker pace toward innovation — far more so that in closed systems.

Open-source projects also tend to benefit from the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ with ideas and innovations that could be missed in closed environments. Most importantly, open-source systems are transparent — nothing is hidden from view, allowing anyone to offer their input equally.

Even nations seem to fall on one side of the open-source versus closed-source structure. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently remarked that countries would no longer be divided along lines such as East or West or religious beliefs. Rather, they would be judged on their relative approach toward openness.

She said that countries closed to “change, ideas, cultures and beliefs that are different from theirs will quickly find that in an internet world they will be left behind”.

Her reference to the internet is an important point — societies could more easily afford to be ‘closed-source’ before the internet. Many attribute the recent upheaval in the Arab world to an increase in the open-source information flow afforded by YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

The UAE is already making efforts to be more open-source. The government of Abu Dhabi, for instance, has pledged to create a transparent regulatory environment as part of its 2030 economic vision.

And, as Federal National Council (FNC) member Noura Al Kaabi has noted, the FNC is also leading the way toward openness. The FNC often raises critical issues into the sphere of public discussion and provides added transparency and accountability to workings of the UAE government.

But the UAE could do more to increase its openness. For instance, some government agencies make decisions without much scrutiny or explanation leaving residents in the dark or puzzled.

Similarly, many government and business spokespeople aren’t empowered to truly provide answers and information to the public. In effect, they’re trapped in a ‘closed-source’ mentality.

Hopefully, the UAE will address these problems and continue making strides toward being more ‘open-sourced’.

Much of the world seems ready to embrace the wisdom of the crowd.


Dr Matt J. Duffy is an assistant professor in the College of Communication and Media Sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Follow him on Twitter at @mattjduffy.