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Open source – the gift that keeps on giving


Johannesburg, 04 May 2022
Read time 4min 50sec
David Jacobson, CEO of SYNAQ.
David Jacobson, CEO of SYNAQ.

In a world in which conflict, crime and chaos dominate mainstream news and social media channels around the world, there’s one global project that proves that people of vastly different backgrounds, cultures and creeds can work together for the betterment of humanity, everywhere.

That project, now in its 30th year, is open source. 

SYNAQ CEO David Jacobson believes open source is possibly the greatest co-operative human undertaking ever. He built his career and his business on it.

“Without it, the impact of catastrophic events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, would have been considerably worse. Yet this project, which involves thousands and thousands of people working together every day in virtually every corner of the globe, seldom – if ever – makes headlines. That’s because we, its beneficiaries, take it for granted. It has become ubiquitous in our lives, he says.

The roots of the open source project can be traced back to the 1960s and the development of Unix, which grew into a collection of standalone operating systems for mainframe computing. But it was only when Finnish student Linus Torvalds released Linux, a version of Unix, as a new, free operating system kernel in September 1991, that open source was truly accelerated. The open source label, however, only came to the fore in 1998 after the release of the Netscape source code.

“Everything we think about computing today, everything we do with computing today – the internet, software as a service, cloud computing – is largely because of open source software,” Jacobson says. 

“There is minimal software in use anywhere in the world that doesn’t utilise or depend on open source. Even Microsoft, which once dubbed open source ‘a cancer’, contributes more to open source than almost any company in the world, including the purchase of Github, the world’s largest software development platform with more than 28 million developers worldwide.”

He points out that a key reason the internet was able to become as powerful as it has it because it is based on open standards.

“When you do a Google search, you’re using open source; when you use Facebook, you’re using open source; when you connect to the internet using your router, you’re using open source software; your smartphone, your car, your washing machine – every aspect of modern life today – probably depends on a piece of software developed somewhere by anonymous individuals who gave away the fruits of their labour for free,” he says, acknowledging that SYNAQ, which pioneered e-mail and cloud security in South Africa, built its solutions by drawing on the collective knowledge of open source.

While the long-standing and often bitter debate has largely ended between those who believe that all open source software should be freeware, and those who use it as a basis for a commercialised enterprise, the fact remains that at its core, the open source business model is an anomaly in today’s largely profit-driven world.

Why do so many talented people work so hard to develop software without financial reward? Why do they just give away what they have created to anyone who wants to use it?

Jacobson believes the answer is threefold: purpose – they do it so they can grow and learn on a personal level or because they enjoy the challenge; they are often solving a problem for themselves or their business; and they then contribute back to the community that has made it easier for them to solve their own problem or challenge.

“The beauty of open source is that once a problem has been solved, that’s it. There’s no need for anyone to reinvent the wheel. Rather, developers can spend their time and energy on enhancing what has already been done, which means things get done faster and mistakes are identified and rectified far more quickly than would otherwise be possible.

“Open source has made it possible to push the technology envelope further and faster than would ever have been possible had the software world remained proprietary,” he says.

However, from a software developer’s perspective, developing quality open source software need not be a totally altruistic endeavour. Jacobson points out that developers who produce quality software or contribute code to various projects can use their track record to find gainful – even lucrative – employment opportunities with any number of enterprise open source companies around the world.

Jacobson notes that after 30 years, the narratives around open source have change. No one really cares any more whether code is open or closed – what really matters is its use case.

For businesses, the only question is whether they have the right software for their needs; and whether they are dealing with the right company or partner that has packaged and enhanced the open source software in a way that enables them to deliver the stability, reliability and consistency that enterprises need.

“At the end of the day, end-users are not going to ask whether code is open source or not. It’s irrelevant. From a personal perspective, however – both as an individual and as a businessperson – I will always be grateful to all the thousands of nameless individuals who have given, and continue to give, such an incredible gift to all humanity,” Jacobson concludes. 

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