Openness in technology: an explainer without technical jargon | of Christmas Macé | blind net | June 2022
What openness means at blindnet, and why we care
In its broadest sense, openness is primarily defined by negation. “To be open” means “not to be” closed, because borders help define proximity more clearly.
The same idea applies to the more specific sense of openness that we find in computing. Computing primarily took shape during the Cold War with the emergence of a “closed world discourse¹” emphasizing security through obscurity and global surveillance. This speech strongly influenced our vision of computing, and continues to do so today. We still tend to view code, innovation, and information as something we need to protect. We still think we can harness the benefits by keeping some kind of magic secret.
But the era of secrets is long gone. Today, people expect to be able to access all the information they need, when they need it. Secrecy in business and technology is considered suspect. Transparency is essential.
And it goes both ways. Customers now use social platforms daily, constantly sharing and collaborating with their peers. Again, secrecy is a distant memory, but without necessarily bringing privacy to an end. Modern users share a large volume of data. They logically expect proportional control over this data. They can no longer accept being passive. Businesses now need to offer everyone both control of their data and the ability to actively contribute.
In short, the public now expects transparency and collaboration. This is precisely what the opening is for.
Openness is a broad and fundamental idea that developed on the basis of free software before extending to all areas of information technology, then to society, with open content, open science, open data, open education, etc.
To understand open-source software is to understand openness. But this designation itself is misleading. “Open source” is not so much a matter of opening up (i.e. sharing) the source code. Putting the source code of a software online does not make it “open-source.” As we have shown previously, openness is strongly linked to collaboration. Share your code, ideas, etc. It’s no use if you don’t engage people to challenge them and improve with you.
To quote the Journal of Information Technology, Openness is the association of “the accessibility of knowledge, technology and other resources; the transparency of the action; the permeability of organizational structures; and inclusiveness of participation” ². All of this, and more, helps us build engagement and drive innovation.
Now all businesses need to make money of course. For this, we must meet the needs of our customers. And in an ever-changing world, knowing what the public really wants is a real challenge³. Building a successful product requires extensive investigation and testing (aka “crowdsourcing”) to improve market fit.
Openness provides a framework to greatly reduce these needs. By building a project and business with constant input from outsiders, we are guaranteed to get most of the feedback we need without the extra effort or expense. Even better, openness builds strong, authentic, long-term relationships, where crowdsourcing relies only on short-term self-interested inquiries.
But that doesn’t answer the main question everyone asks when talking about Open Business: how can we make money if we share our product with everyone? After all, companies like Louis Vuitton don’t provide open specs to show how to make my own luxury bag. There should be a good reason behind that, right?
Right. And that reason is called branding. Luxury brands like Louis Vuitton must guarantee a certain level of quality to their products, because it is linked to their brand image. Manufacturing control is their only option⁴.
Openness in technology is the opposite. First, because software is, by definition, immaterial. Copying it does not detract from its quality. And secondly because by adopting the principles of openness, you can demonstrate to your clients your mastery of related subjects.
Again, Open Source is not enough on its own. We must maintain a constant flow of collaboration with the community to guarantee a better brand image and innovate faster than the competition.
With this image and constant innovation, a company can offer a wide range of offers around its Open Source productions:
- Software As a Service, to make the software easier to use, more stable, more efficient, etc.,
- proprietary (i.e. “closed”) extensions on top of an open “core” to meet more specific needs,
- Professional services, such as advice, support and training,
- and more.
Some companies can still make money selling proprietary software.
First, there are the Big Corps, like Microsoft or Oracle. Their first common denominator is a very strong and well-established brand. A brand they can use to build trust with customers and associates, reducing their need for collaboration⁵. Today, blindnet does not fit into this category. We are the new challenger who is here to disrupt the market with innovation and an outside perspective. We must use weapons suitable for this challenge.
Then there are products for non-technical people, where branding and market fit can be built with traditional marketing tools like ads and surveys.
At blindnet, our first objective is to meet the needs of developers. This audience is insensitive to traditional marketing but has high expectations for openness and collaboration.
In addition, we work on data privacy, which is strongly related to information security and trust. And no one yet believes that these topics can be discussed in secret. Everyone (especially developers) is aware that computers are not trustworthy. We have to open the hood and check the operation of the engine. To ensure that the security software we use can guarantee security on its own, using solutions such as end-to-end cryptography.
At blindnet, we firmly believe this is the only option because we empower developers to build software that users love and trust. That openness and confidentiality are two sides of the same coin. People’s trust in us is based on facts, and nothing else.