To the average capitalist “open source” software may seem like a pretty odd idea. Like most products, conventional computer software—from video games to operating systems—is developed in secret, away from the prying eyes of competitors, and then sold to customers as a finished product. Open-source software, which has roots in the collaborative atmosphere of computing’s earliest days, takes the opposite approach. Code is public, and anyone is free to take it, modify it, share it, suggest improvements or add new features.
It has been a striking success. Open-source software runs more than half the world’s websites and, in the form of Android, more than 80% of its smartphones. Some governments, including Germany’s and Brazil’s, prefer their officials to use open-source software, in part because it reduces their dependence on foreign companies. The security-conscious appreciate the ability to inspect, in detail, the goods they are using. It is perfectly compatible with making money. In July ibm spent $34bn to buy Red Hat, an American maker of a free open-source operating system, which earns its crust by charging for ancillary services like customer support and training.