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SxSW: Applying open source lessons to any business

SxSW: Applying open source lessons to any business

Yesterday I attended a talk at the SxSW festival by Ruth Suehle, a senior editor for open source company Red Hat.

Ruth SuehleSuehle’s thesis is that companies can take the lessons learned from open source software and apply them to other types of business.

Suehle gave a host of examples where the opening up of business has proved beneficial – she talked of the rise of new business models and the fact that schools, government departments and a host of other organisations are using an open source approach towards their business.

Conversely, she also told of the perils of closed software – recounting the tale of a friend who, on finding out she needed a pacemaker, attempted to review the computer code that powered the device. After much pushing the code was released and said friend found a bug that could have meant third parties on an everyday computer could hack someone’s implanted pacemaker.

And she spoke of the rise of open manufacturing – where tools like Makerbot are allowing both the democratisation and dissemination of manufacturing knowledge.

According to Suehle, open source is the best way to get your ideas heard, make the world a better a place, and still turn a profit. No matter what business you're in, you can take a lesson from open source.

While her presentation was compelling for new companies developing new products or services, Suehle had less emphatic answer for existing companies with significant investments in research and development to pay off. Though the brave new world might be exciting, it tends to forget there is a world already extant.

Having said that, Suehle was a lot less dogmatic than other open source advocates such as Richard Stallman – recognising the fact that it isn’t a black and white situation and some industries have massive investment requirements meaning complete openness isn’t viable.

For example, the pharmaceutical industry was one area in which Suehle agreed intellectual property protection was required – otherwise it is unlikely that pharmaceutical research would actually be undertaken.

Suehle was an interesting and passionate speaker who undoubtedly understands her subject deeply. I camw away from the session thinking with more evangelists like her (and our very own Don Christie and Dave Lane) and fewer dogma-driven zealots like Richard Stallman, open source would have a far stronger following.