Open Source

Death Of A Salesman

I’m hazarding a guess.

There must have been at least one point in your life, where every time you heard the doorbell ring, you’d cringe. You knew it had to be another smooth talking, door-to-door salesman – about to wax lyrical about your house, your good looks and before realizing it; leaves you standing with the ‘Super Broom DMX 5000’ and $69.99 poorer.

Hey…it happens to the most discerning of us. No biggie. Do what I do – just pretend you ain’t home, even though your TV could be blaring loudly in the background. It’s not a very nice thing to do, but it works. This just got me wondering though…whatever happened to that bow-tied encyclopedia salesman? When was the last time you’ve seen one of those? They’re as elusive as the yeti, yet nobody seems to know why.

I have a few theories. It might have been Microsoft’s release of the less bulky, Encarta CD-ROM, in 1993. Or Encyclopædia Britannica’s electronic venture. Or quite simply, the Internet.

But my most plausible theory for the disappearance of the encyclopedia salesman is due to one man – Jimmy Wales.

The founder of Wikipedia, who turned a radical concept into a global source for authoritative referencing (this is open to debate) in less than five years, Jimmy Wales has intentionally applied the chaos theory to the encyclopedic world. He, I believe, ‘killed’ the last of the encyclopedia salesman.

With more than two million Wikipedia articles (The Encyclopædia Britannica can boast only about a 120,000) in several different languages, there’s information about practically anything you could possibly think of. Try it out for yourself.

Do a search on Wikipedia for a topic of your choice, and see if it pops up.

Wikipedia Search

You might want to try either of these independent search engines that specifically searches in Wikipedia as well:

  • FUTEF : search engine that currently searches Wikipedia only

  • Qwika : search engine that is specific to searching wikis in all sizeable languages

Wikipedia is the world’s largest encyclopedia. And you own it. As an owner, you are also given the license to write and edit any article that you think needs correcting or updating.

What if you may need to use the information for a project, but you’re afraid of infringing on any copyright law? No worries. Wikipedia’s free licensing mode gives you absolute freedom to do as you please with the information you see. You can copy it, redistribute it, repackage the information and sell it with no fear of receiving a cease-and-desist order.

Jimmy Wales describes Wikipedia as having free access to “the sum of all human knowledge” and it’s quite easy to see why. It’s probably the most referenced site on the Internet. It’s a blogger’s Holy book; turning to it for answers when they need it. Mainstream journalists are joining in the fray too. It’s hard not to turn your back on it when it’s perfectly built to be current and all-inclusive.

But of course, like most good plots, there must be a twist thrown in there somewhere. That comes in the form of what Wikipedia’s detractors would like to call, ‘credibility’, or the lack of it. What credibility can Wikipedia possibly have when any Harry, Dick, Jane and Sally (did I miss Tom?) is allowed to poke around and modify articles? A valid question. One that had me bothered too, until I heard Jimmy Wale’s reply.

He said, Wikipedia’s credibility is based on the social concept of cooperation. A policy of neutrality.  A close circle of volunteers (can’t remember the exact number) – are constantly monitoring the changes that any one of us makes. Once a change is made, it enters a page called, ‘Recent Changes’. If the changes are suspect, leaning towards vandalism, then this group of volunteers spring into action and revert it back to the original article. Communication among volunteers is conducted via technologies such as RSS and IRC.  

A very workable system I admit, but its still without its flaws. Apart from the occasional vandalism that slips through the cracks, the problem of unjust biasness towards a more familiar Wikipedian with higher standing is conceivable. Therefore, is there really equality when determining what materials gets published and what is dumped into the digital incinerator? How does one really determine that the article published has escaped any kind of slanted prejudice merely because of greater ranking within the Wikipedian ‘in-crowd’?

The nit-picking is elevated to a higher degree when questions about quality and accuracy of articles are posed. How do you know which entry to trust?

Another potential issue with Wikipedia is striking the balance between the past and present. Because Wikipedia is web-based, celebrity gossip and breaking news are fairly common entries. The very virtue, which sets Wikipedia apart from traditional print encyclopedias, appears to be a liability. Do entries about current events take precedence over past events? 

Ok, so I have more questions than answers, but I realize that Wikipedia is still at its embryonic stage. It will only get bigger and better. If you’re keen on familiarizing yourself a little better with Wikipedia’s less-than palatable internal operations, feel free to read Aaron Swartz’s, Raw Thought.

On a more optimistic note, it’s exciting times ahead for the educational sector as Wikipedia’s new project, Wikiversity, aims to provide access to freely licensed learning materials for all age groups. It is a community where teachers and learners are strongly encouraged to participate. It’s another fine example of what the wiki model can conjure up.

Now, if you had it up to your neck with all this talk of Wikis and you’re desperately in need of a ‘fixer-upper’, I have the perfect solution for you. I want you to mosey along over to wikiHow (you read that right, another wiki!) and type into its search box, ‘Save Me’. And see what pops up.

This wiki model works exactly like Wikipedia’s. It’s a community-powered how-to manual which aims to be – you guessed it – the world’s largest how-to manual. Never thought it possible to get rid of a hickey? Well…eh…now you can (can’t imagine the number of marriages this how-to might save!).

Hmmm, maybe Jimmy Wales could do something about those pesky bill collectors.


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The post which I have written below, was meant for my Technopreneur blog. But it has much to do with educators as it has to do with entrepreneurs, so I am posting it here too. I will be sharing many open source tools with you in future like Moodle, so it’s will worth the read.” 

Have you ever just paused for a second and wondered, what life would have been like if the Internet did not exist? Yeah, I know…it’s almost unthinkable. 

The Internet has become an integral part of our lives and it’s partly due to the large chunks of communication that we conduct online. The collaboration via e-mails, the free exchange of ideas and information that we perform on a daily basis is to a large extent, what brought about the Web in the first place. 

What we perhaps tend to forget, is that during the early stages of the Internet, there was a huge availability of free software and programming languages (paying over-the-top prices for software today tends to induce such amnesia).

It was available freely mainly to get the Web to where it is today. In the process, a few individuals have reaped, massive financial rewards, where for them, like Warren Buffett, donating 37 billion dollars to a charity organization is merely chump change (you can tell I’m bitterly envious, can’t you?). 

Call it utopian or otherwise, but we have benefited tremendously from the development of the Internet. And this development has spawned a whole community in and of itself. It’s called the OSI – Open Source Initiative. Open source is what is used to describe the free usage of software I alluded to earlier. But there’s more to it, as explained on OSI’s website:

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.

We in the open source community have learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits.

Open Source Initiative exists to make this case to the commercial world.

Open source software is an idea whose time has finally come. For twenty years it has been building momentum in the technical cultures that built the Internet and the World Wide Web. Now it’s breaking out into the commercial world, and that’s changing all the rules. Are you ready?“

So as an user, you are attributed rights to take freely, an open source’s application source code, modify it as you please, as long as the distribution terms of the software is complied with.

The open source community is one that challenges the absurdity of having to pay exorbitant prices for proprietary software, or even paying for software, period. Mind you, the open source community is not some, ‘fly by night’ bunch of misfits, who sounds the clarion call for ‘free-dom‘, every time Microsoft releases a press statement.

Open source has become a serious contender to companies selling proprietary software. More and more businesses and non-profit organizations are turning to open source for business solutions and even as part of their innovation strategy. William C. Taylor and Polly G. LaBarre, both of Fast Company  fame, have expounded on this growing popularity of open source in their new book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win. If you’re harboring doubts about the viability of open source in business, their book can help alleviate them.

Linux, Unix, Wikipedia, Mozilla Firefox, are some examples of open source development. You could well be using an open source application right now in the form of the Firefox browser.

So Why Should I Care About Open Source?

Well for one, you could be saving a whole lotta cash. Because apart from buying your PC, everything else – you can get for FREE. And that includes your operating system.

I just mentioned the Firefox browser – a direct competitor to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The OS’s equivalent to Microsoft’s Windows would be Linux. You can get an open source version to practically any software that is commercially available on the market today – it’s just that those who live outside of ‘Geekdom’ are not aware of this.

There are of course the cons of choosing the open source option over the commercial equivalent – one of which is – if you’re need of technical assistance, it’s not as easy as picking up the phone and speaking to the tech guy. You will need to get your hands dirty by rummaging through the forums to get the help you need. This could be time consuming and slightly frustrating in an emergency situation. But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys getting under the hood of your car and tinkering with the engine, then open source is probably your cup of tea. The money you save makes a difference.

Is Open Source The Same As Freeware?

No. Freeware is free for you to download and use, but the copyright belongs strictly to the programmer, developer or originator of that software. You are not allowed to toy with the code.

What About Shareware?

No, shareware is not similar to open source as well. Shareware is usually offered to you as a free download for a specified amount of time; otherwise known as a ‘free trial’. After which, you are required to buy the product. 

To get a better idea of how freeware and shareware works, head on over to Browse through its offerings of freeware and shareware. You might wanna grab a Subway sandwich though. It could take some time getting through even a quarter of that site.

Open source has its fair share of fanatics and critics. It has drawn enough attention to itself to force some leading analysts and researchers to address this issue. In my upcoming posts, I will be pointing you to valuable open source applications that I know you will be delighted with. Whether it’s for home or business, you’ll definitely find a use for it.

Who knows, commercial software may even be a thing of the past for you.

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