Since early October, I've been nattering on and on about the open source approach. I'm not going to repeat it all here now (start with my blogs for October 5 and 6 if you're interested). Suffice it to say that Google is one of the chief proponents of an open source approach which is a collaborative, sharing approach while Microsoft (until very recently) has been the poster child for a closed source or proprietary approach.
CNET News this morning had an interesting article in which it talked about predictions for the future with respect to IT (Information Technology) spending. It quotes Frank Gens, senior vice president of research at IDC, as saying, "A critical new ingredient we'll see (in 2006) is the acceleration of disruptive business models; 'open innovation' in IT product and service development--the open-source effect--and online delivery of IT as a service--the Google effect."
"Gens also believes that open-source-like collaboration will grow in popularity." He goes so far as to say, "Most of the big market share leaders in IT--e.g., Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP--got that way by keeping tight control over their own product development. The 'go it alone' model of innovation is an endangered species in the IT industry, and incorporationg a community-based innovation model--e.g., open source--is quickly becoming an important ingredient for market leadership."
When you read articles like the CNET one, it's easy to fall into a position that an open source approach is all things positive. Today, I'd like to talk a bit about the dark side of open source and some of the potential pitfalls.
On Tuesday, John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist, wrote a very personal op-ed piece in USA Today about his own open-source experience. In late May, he discovered that Wikipedia, the wildly popular online encyclopedia, had a reference about him that read:
"John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."
The first part of that reference was true. Seigenthaler WAS the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. However, the stuff about his being suspected of being involved in the Kennedy assassinations was a malicious fabrication. However, it was a malicious fabrication which was picked up and repeated on other websites such as Reference.com and Answers.com.
How could this happen, you ask? It happened (and can happen again) because Wikipedia is an open source effort. I wrote about this in my blog of 9/22 entitled "Do You Wiki?" I explained that Wikipedia's entries are written "collaboratively by volunteers." That means that anyone with knowledge on a subject (or even without knowledge) can write an entry and have it posted under the Wikipedia byline. According to Wikipedia itself: "Wikipedia is built on the belief that collaboration among users will improve articles over time, in much the same way that open-source software develops."
Seigenthaler, who was a pallbearer at Bobby Kennedy's funeral and who is now 78 years old, was understandably outraged. He contacted Wikipedia, demanding that they remove the falsehoods. It took four months for this to happen. And then it took even longer for the other websites that were quoting Wikipedia to remove the objectionable content from their sites.
Seigenthaler wrote the op-ed piece to announce, "I want to unmask my 'biographer.' And, I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool."
Charles Cooper of CNET News talked about the Seigenthaler incident this morning. He said, "Maybe this is part of the price that we're going to have to pay for the open approach where the system's very strength sometimes turns out to be its Achilles heel: Somebody nursing a grudge can always pervert or airbrush the historical record."
In a little over ten years, the Internet has become as much a part of daily living as our microwave ovens, electric toothbrushes and cell phones. There's a tendency on the part of many people to accept anything they see written on the Web and--especially on sites as popular as Wikipedia--as gospel. We need to remember to think critically and to check our sources not just once, but multiple times.