Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Barn Raising, 21rst Century Style

Let's say that your daughter has a report due for in history. She's supposed to write 5 pages on Abraham Lincoln. Where do you start?

Well, you can go to the public library, of course, but suppose you just want to get started working from home. I mean, you spent almost a grand for that beige box on your desktop, and you're paying twenty-five bucks a month to plug into the world, right? Why not use it for something other than chat rooms and sports scores?

But where will she go to find historic information, nicely summarized so that she can learn what she needs for a good report?

You can start at wikipedia.org. It's an online encyclopedia. Type Abraham Lincoln and read the article. Hey, cool! Look! It links to other related articles. And to other websites! It's a wealth of information. And it's free.

But wait. Is it legal for her to use that information? Can she quote it? Of course! Anyone can quote it. In fact, anyone can edit it, too.

This is the world of open source, a movement that has been growing steadily, even rapidly in the last few years. It flies in the face of the current business models of jealously guarding copyrights and patents. It turns the current model of corporate secrets in R&D on its ear. Here's how it works:

An idea or a project is born in someone's mind. Instead of keeping that idea quiet, that person announces the idea to the 'net using any number of media. That could include a collaborative website, like the wikipedia, or something even as simple as a blog or a forum posting. If the idea has merit, it will attract the interest of others, who will begin contributing effort and more ideas. Pretty soon, a product emerges, a result. Here's the interesting part: All the documentation and information that went into making that product is available, free, to all.

And before you think that too many cooks would spoil the broth, and that only the simplest of things could be created that way, ask yourself this. How about a computer operating system? How about an operating system that has the potential to challenge Microsoft's Iron Grip on the market share? What about Linux?

Linux is kind of the poster child for the open source system. It's a robust and stable alternative to MS windows. And it's free. And the code is free. What that means is that if you just want to use it, you can download it and install it. If you know how to program, and you think you can do better, you can. That means that their R&D department is made of hackers and geeks all over the world, and trying in their own way to make it better.

Back to the Wikipedia: This online encyclopedia works the same way. People all over the world, with all sorts of interests and knowledge bases all contribute freely to creating the content. The idea is that if everyone brings a bit of knowledge and effort to the table, before you know it, the whole dinner is that much more delicious.

In an article in Wired Magazine, the author compared it to the community barn raisings of the 1800's. When someone’s barn burned down, or a new family needed to build one, the whole community turned up at their house and built one. The difference? The barn is electronic, and the community is world wide.

More examples? MIT now offers "Open Course Ware". The texts, materials, and information that many of the classes MIT offers are now available online, for free. People individually and in groups all over the world are learning things that are taught at MIT. How can they afford to give it away? Simple. If you want the degree, you have to pay for it and attend the school. If you just want to learn the info, go right ahead.

The PLOS project (Public Library Of Science) is an effort to make scientific research available to all, not just in expensive academic journals. The Gutenberg project is a compilation of over 6000 public domain books now available for free download.

What does this have to do with small business? Use the free resources available to you. Contribute to the betterment and the growth of them, and the community.

It IS an ever changing world. Business models are shifting and adapting all the time. Remember, knowledge is power, and adaptability is the key.

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