Article: How Open Source Toppled Governments and Saved Lives


So far this has been a year of remarkable political change in the Middle East, and all indications show that the region will continue along unpredictable paths over the coming months. At the end of the year we will likely look back and remark on how people took power into their own hands in almost every country, mobilized across political divides, natural catastrophes and made those in power listen. We will likely focus, as we have done in the past, on companies and services such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. But we’re missing the true story behind how dramatic the landscape of technology has changed in the past 12 years.

The true story lies in the very fabric of the technologies that power these services: Open Source Software. It is the idea that anyone can generally use and deploy such software for free with modifications and improvements being shared for everyone else to use. That very fabric of open code-sharing seems to have been built into the very companies that sprouted from the liberal use of such software. Twitter’s API openness (despite their recent change of tune) sparked their success, Facebook’s openness and its platform sparked its success, and Google might be the epitome of an Open Source mega-giant. Just look at where we have come…

As MySQL’s Community Manager for North America (then owned by Sun Microsystems) I toured campuses in North America talking to students about the amazing change that has been wrought by Open Source database software called MySQL. I asked the students to consider a day in their life and then showed them how often MySQL turned up. But now, looking back on the past dozen years, it’s even more fundamental, even more incredible. A dozen years ago, what we thought of as “the Web” was a collection of web sites, brochure sites, eBay, fledgling Amazon and “social media” centered around instant messaging and “forums.” We were seeing companies start to advertise “dot com” addresses and one could even visualize the size of Google’s database.

I’m pretty sure Google’s number of indexed web pages these days is a figure that defies the ability for most brains to wrap themselves around. Today we’re seeing a shift as people are constantly online on mobile devices, and Facebook pages and Twitter handles are taking over our airwaves as the places companies promote themselves. In that same time, people have mobilized locally and internationally using the same technologies and services on which we spend time commenting on cute cat videos.

Governments who seemed to be at strength, like in Tunisia and Egypt, have suddenly found themselves at the mercy of their citizens. Companies are now listening to their customers with the knowledge that a misstep in customer relations does not just spread to a few people, but to millions by the amplification possible through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. When a natural disaster hits, such as what is happening in Japan and what recently occurred in New Zealand, instead of using phones or being glued to the television, we first turn to Facebook and Twitter to reach out and touch family and friends.

As I said, at the heart of all this change and disruption is Open Source. You see, companies like mine, Empire Avenue, a crazy idea about allowing people to list themselves on a social stock market, or another crazy idea like sending 140 character messages would not have been possible had its creators had to pay for the initial underlying technology that powers our services. The very freedom to innovate is what has driven our creation of these technologies!

I focus at times on MySQL, partly because of my past affiliations, but also because MySQL is a piece of software that bridges the gap between all major operating systems, forms the core data store of popular web applications, and most importantly, because from the first day it was supported by an organization dedicated to promoting and popularizing the idea of MySQL and Open Source generally. Over a decade, MySQL AB made the idea of data storage “cool.” They allowed developers like me to experiment. Ultimately, as companies scale upward, the “free” cost of open source is not actually free, and MySQL AB, the company, created a supremely profitable business around it – so much so that Sun Microsystems bought MySQL AB for $1 billion. Finding commercial success for Open Source, it seems to now have bridged the divide into the political and public spheres.

Without MySQL, Red Hat, Apache, PHP, Perl, Python and so much other Open Source, many of the services and sites that we know today may not exist today. I’ll name a few: Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, WordPress, Skype and, of course, Facebook. I describe MySQL and Open Source generally as the real-world equivalent of utility companies. Imagine if the costs of providing roads and energy were minimal or next to nothing; instead of focusing on these things, the citizens of the real world could focus on innovation and new ideas. In the world of the Internet, MySQL and others provide the basic building blocks of the infrastructure that allow entrepreneurs, developers and innovators to create new (and sometimes crazy) worlds for you to play in. These worlds have changed how you perceive and use technology and have gone further to change the very way we connect to each other as a human race.

So, 12 years later, we have a world where crowds can chat instantly around the globe, learn from each other, help each other and ultimately come together to change the planet through devolution, revolution and evolution. Simply put, dictators should tremble the world over for something as fundamental as a database could be at the heart of bringing true change eventually. Finally, the ability to create innovative technology for sharing, helping and communicating will also see us overcome great disasters and ultimately make this world a truly amazing place. Open Source in all incarnations is not done yet; we’re just getting started!

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