The more the merrier

How business has latched on to open source

When the low-fare American airline JetBlue grounded flights during a vicious ice storm in February, it left hundreds stranded on the runway. Passenger response was predictable, but JetBlue's wasn't. With the airline's reputation in a nosedive, the CEO posted an apology on YouTube - and the criticism soon died down.

YouTube epitomises the popularity of the burgeoning open-source movement. "Open source" once referred to the decision to make the source code for computer software freely available, meaning that anyone could copy, rewrite and improve it. The underlying principle is simple: the more contributors, the better. Now it is being applied to other disciplines. There are open-source novels, open-source films and an open-source encyclopaedia.

"Open source is what happens when the demand side supplies itself," says Doc Searls, one of the movement's pioneers. Inherently democratic, its biggest impact so far has been on journalism. User-generated websites and blogs have mushroomed in the past five years, creating "citizen journalists". Open source is changing politics, too. Few candidates head out on the campaign trail without creating a MySpace page.

The business world has latched on to open source. Some spin-offs may be little more than a fad. Some sound promising, like the project to develop drugs to treat diseases in poor countries. Blowfly - an Australian beer - has an "open-source" recipe, freely available for anyone to read and improve, and anyone can help design OScar, the world's first open-source car. Stranger still is the open-source religion Yoism, whose holy text is constantly updated by followers who count Einstein and Dylan among their saints.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning