Open source software and start-ups

Open source software has been instrumental in the growth of many tech companies in Silicon Valley and around the world. The free and open source software enable start-ups to create something innovative at a very low cost, then give it away for free to see how customers like it. In this fashion, they can be very responsive in addressing the feedback from the market and create truly innovative products and services. Google and Facebook are great examples of tech companies that build their empire on open source software.

The early, popular open source software projects are licensed under a so-called “copyleft” licence, a play on the word copyright. If one makes use of copyleft software, one must also give away the source code of the derived work and licence it under copyleft as well. The intention of copyleft licence is to create a domino effect to ensure that all software be open source. Examples of copyleft software include the Linux operating system, and the popular MySQL database server.

Software under a permissive licence is not so strict in enforcing the derived work to be open source.

Other open source software projects are offered under “permissive” licences. Software under a permissive licence is not so strict in enforcing the derived work to be open source. In other words, one can use software with a permissive licence to build something without having to give away the source code of the resulting software. Not surprisingly, software under a permissive licence becomes more and more popular nowadays due to its flexible usage condition. Examples of software under a permissive licence include Apache web server, FreeSWITCH telephony server.

Many softwares that are in everyday use of consumers are also powered by open source software. Popular browsers like Chrome and Safari are powered by WebKit, an open source Web rendering engine that was first released as an open source project by Apple, then joined by Google and Adobe, among others.

In Thailand, open source is not much in widespread use among either enterprises or start-ups. In corporate IT, few enterprises go beyond OpenOffice, an open source office suite that aims to replace the proprietary Office suite applications. In start-ups, the situation is not that much different. Most of the start-ups that I came into contact with build their services using proprietary software stacks as opposed to open source ones.

Should we be worried? After all, Thailand seems to have many successful and talented start-ups that have won many awards and even funding. Is it possible that we don’t need to use open source software to succeed as a start-up?

I strongly believe that to build truly world-class tech companies like Google and Facebook, we need to have a flexible building block as a base. We might be able to create fancy websites and mobile services with bells and whistles using proprietary technology. But to create innovative breakthrough services, open source software gives us more flexibility and freedom to convert our imagination into reality.

I believe that successful Thai start-ups will become even more successful if they know how to leverage the power of open source software.

Posted on The Nation