To Expedite Innovation, Give Away Your Code

Open-source software has been a growing phenomenon for more than two decades, but in recent years it has risen in importance in a whole new way: as a key to rapid innovation for startups and corporate giants alike.

One example of open-source software being used to increase the velocity of technical innovation can be seen with Airbnb. In early June, Airbnb did something that might sound crazy. It decided to give away a sophisticated software tool it developed called Aerosolve.

Aerosolve uses machine learning to understand what consumers will pay for a certain kind of room in a certain place — and helps people figure out how to price their Airbnb rentals.

This easily could have been seen as valuable Intellectual Property to secure within their business, and yet Airbnb posted Aerosolve on its website so any developer can download it, alter it and build it into other smart-recommendation apps. Why? Because this is the way modern technology companies move fast and attract great developer talent.

By opening its software, others will work on it, make it better and give it features Airbnb might never have considered. Airbnb can then adopt those improvements, extend further and get an innovation multiplier effect on the original engineering investment. The company is harnessing the crowd to move faster than it could ever do on its own.

Open-source software gives companies access to the best developer tools and code instantly, allowing for rapid innovation.

A generation ago, open source was a new idea that seemed to have little applicability to big business. It was a playground for researchers (most of them academics), and their goal was to build a better system, not to make money.

Real business was done on closed systems built by companies like Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, all developed internally at what now seems like a snail’s pace, with long multi-year R&D cycles.

Companies no longer have the luxury of time in our hyper-connected, cloud-based, fast-changing world. Competitors can quickly appear, and have been doing so in droves.

In this market, open-source software gives companies access to the best developer tools and code instantly, allowing for rapid innovation by letting them immediately benefit from the work of hundreds or thousands of developers, contributing just those pieces that are unique to their business or use case.

As a result, the most recent Future of Open Source survey showed that 64 percent of corporations are now using open systems, and 88 percent say their engagement with open systems will grow — up from just 56 percent saying the same in 2014.

The survey also found that 87 percent of companies expect to increase their contributions to open-source communities in the next two to three years. Even public market giants like Pfizer are getting involved, creating and giving back open-source software.

The streaming media behemoth Netflix also has been a leader in showing the effectiveness of open source for innovation in today’s environment. When Netflix started streaming movies to millions of members, relying on Amazon Web Services as its cloud platform, no one was doing anything like it.

Netflix couldn’t find any commercial tools to manage its system, so it had to create them. It could’ve painstakingly built proprietary tools, but instead it turned to the open-source community for help — and in turn made the tools they created available to the public.

The result for Netflix has been a series of innovative tools that it calls its Simian Army. Chaos Monkey, for instance, randomly shuts off various virtual machines in a Netflix services on AWS to make sure that any given service will continue to work if another virtual machine gets knocked out. Another, Janitor Monkey, roams the system looking for unused resources and switches them off, thereby cleaning up the system.

Going open source helped Netflix get help from thousands of developers who don’t work for Netflix but feel they would benefit from those same tools once developed. Without that help, Netflix would have had a very difficult time building the breakthrough streaming media features that have differentiated them as quickly as they needed while also attracting some of the best talent in the valley.

As open source continues to expand, it’s difficult to predict just what the future holds.

These days, with the economy strong and speed to market the highest priority, any discussion about going open source due to cost is long gone. Companies trying to take advantage of the changes happening across our society, such as the rise of cloud computing, mobile and social media, are paying whatever it takes to be competitive, and leaders are overwhelmingly choosing open source.

Even some of the more traditional Fortune 500 companies, like Chevron, Wal-Mart, Berkshire Hathaway, Ford and GE are now embracing open source to run their applications and meet their infrastructure needs.

As open source continues to expand, it’s difficult to predict just what the future holds. But there is one thing that is likely to be true; in a digital world where “Disrupt or Die” is the driving mantra, we can bet that the new development stack will be an open source one.