Open Source in the UK: Sharing the Fire

As even a cursory glance at articles on Open Enterprise over the last few years will indicate, open source is a massive success in practically every market. Except, unfortunately, on the desktop (famously) and more, generally, for consumers. ...


As even a cursory glance at articles on Open Enterprise over the last few years will indicate, open source is a massive success in practically every market. Except, unfortunately, on the desktop (famously) and more, generally, for consumers. And as Aral Balkan points out in an important post from a few weeks ago, that’s a real problem:

Open source must succeed in the consumer space because I do not want to live in a world where the only choices my future children have are ‘which closed silos do I surrender my data, privacy, and rights to?’ And the only way I see of realising that dream is to implement what DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg calls ‘frictionless privacy’ via a new open platform and products that are experience€?driven and design€?led.

Here’s why those aspects matter:

There was a time when features were a competitive advantage. Where every feature allowed you to do something that was previously impossible. It didn’t matter whether a feature was hard to use because the only alternative was that you didn’t get to do whatever that feature enabled you to do. However, for most things, that era is now behind us. The limiting factor in most consumer products today is not CPU power or RAM or the number of software features. It is the interface between the machine and the human using the machine. The bottlenecks of our age are empathy and imagination, not features.

Today, we live in the Age of Experiences. Features are commodities. And, like all commodities, they are not a competitive advantage. The competitive advantage of our age is the experience. It is a holistic thing. It is a scary thing because crafting a good one involves constantly thinking about these scary beings called humans who are emotional, irrational, and unpredictable. Much easier to think of database schemas and communications protocols instead; at least they are logical, rational, and predictable. And yet, understanding humans must be central to our process if we are to create expriences for them that are enlightening, empowering, amusing, and perhaps even delightful.

And this is why that’s a big problem for open source:

To put it bluntly, the current crop of features€?led open source products are stuck in the Age of Features and cannot compete successfully in the consumer space with the products of a design€?led, experience€?driven company like Apple. And yet, competing in the consumer space on user experience is exactly what open source needs to do if we are to have open alternatives to the closed silos of Google, Apple, and Facebook; closed silos that increasingly shape, regulate, and filter our experience of the world.

Here’s what Balkan proposes:

The only way I see of creating a different world is if we suceed in moving open source beyond the realm of über geeks to create a third alternative to design€?led closed source and features€?led open source: design€?led open source. And the only way I see of doing that is to create a new platform with new products. Products that are experience€?driven and design€?led. Products that compete on user experience, not on ideology. Products that are a great experience out of the box and just happen to be open. That is the vision and Codename Prometheus is the new initiative I’m launching to make this vision a reality.

The modestly-named Codename Prometheus is both an open platform and a company building products using that platform:

This is a new breed of open source company that we are founding. An open source company that is design€?led, where development is experience€?driven. An open source company that will, of course, listen to its community and to its users but where the community and its users do not make the decisions.

It’s also a very unusual company because of its motivations:

It is inspired in part by the Snowden leaks about the NSA and GCHQ spying programmes on ordinary citizens. Our aim is to create products that are great experiences out of the box. Oh, and by the way, they just happen to be open. They just happen to protect your privacy and respect your human rights.

A company based around open source and privacy, inspired by Snowden’s leaks and GCHQ’s massive surveillance programme? That’s pretty remarkable, and on its own would make the endeavour worth supporting. But there’s another hugely important reason why we should get behind this idea: this is a British project, based in Brighton.

Silicon Roundabout is all very well, but it’s largely driven by giant US companies and their agendas. What the UK’s computing industry needs is a vision and a platform that is suitable for a wide variety of startups offering both local and global products. It’s hard to tell from the rather scant details we have, but the premise of Codename Prometheus is certainly promising, since it would allow new entrants to use open source to address the mainstream consumer market – something that has been hard to do so far.

Similarly, companies of all sizes should welcome a new platform of the kind that is envisaged. Its open source nature brings with it all the proven advantages of free software that we have seen on the server side. Its emphasis on privacy will be crucial for the future, as more emphasis is rightly placed on this aspect in the wake of the NSA spying scandal. European data protection legislation may also place greater focus on this aspect. A platform with privacy protection built in from the start is more likely to address this problem than older approaches that try to bolt privacy on as an afterthought.

As a hint of what’s planned, I recommend reading the rest of Balkan’s post, since it contains more information about his ideas, as well as ways to get involved. As more details emerge, I’ll be reporting back on what sounds like an exciting and potentially important project for both open source and the UK.

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