The True Nature of Open Source
Open source is frequently described as technology. I believe, however, that it is not a new technology itself, but rather a change in the social organization of the software industry.
Consider a historical example. Gunpowder, and its associated products, such as cannons and muskets, were new technological innovations. But the true impact of this new technology was in the organization of armies. Mass conscription infantrymen replaced the knights and elite calvary of the Middle Ages. Artillery rendered fortified cities with their massive walls and towers obsolete. Professional staff officers began to supplement, then replace, hereditary noblemen as military leaders. All of this social change was touched off by the introduction of new technology, in this case cannons and muskets, but the change itself was social and organizational.
Similarly, the open source movement was accelerated by new technology. In this case, the new technology is obviously the Internet, which becomes a vehicle for collaboration on and distribution of software. In the early days of Unix, UC Berkeley might send out a few hundred to a thousand copies on magnetic tape to other universities. Today, open source software is downloaded by the millions. Open source has followed the Internet out of the obscure corners of academia and into the mainstream software industry.
But open source itself is not a new technology. It is not a new methodology for creating software, the way that Unified Processes, UMLs, Agile or Extreme Programming are. It is also not a tool for creating software, the way that emacs, gcc, Eclipse, or Subversion are. It is certainly not a new programing language like Java, Python, or Ruby.
Instead, it is a new form of social organization. Users, producers, and distributors play different roles under open source models than under traditional software models. Different hierarchies exist in the open source markets. Old revenue models, namely licensing, no longer apply, but new ones are also being invented. That, I believe, is true excitement behind open source--the opportunity to create a new form of social and economic organization.