Some programmers enjoy programming in the same way that a writer loves to write or a violinist loves to fiddle.

For those so inclined, contributing to an open source project—in which coders collaborate on the creation of a piece of software, a website or any online application—can be a satisfying experience. It also provides them opportunities to learn new tricks and to see the results of their work in the wild.

For open-source coders, the idea of decentralized technological creativity has developed into something akin to a religion. While it would be an oversimplification to call them virtual Marxists, they do believe that intellectual property is more valuable when it’s shared.

This idea has resulted in a number of huge technological success stories. The WordPress blog platform, Apache servers, MySQL databases and Google’s Android OS all were born from open source projects.

Three weeks ago, when the non-profit software company Mozilla dropped Firefox 4, the open-source community had its most high-profile success ever.

Microsoft had released its new internet browser, Internet Explorer 9, a week earlier at South by Southwest. At the event (webcast live), an MS product manager in a SXSW sweatshirt showed off the new browser’s features and urged the gathered hipster-nerds to download it for free. In published reports following the event, company spokespeople boasted that IE9 had gotten to market ahead of Firefox 4. But within a week, Firefox was blowing IE9 away.

Firefox, built by what Mozilla describes as a “movement” of programmers around the world, almost all unpaid, has long been the favorite browser of tech-savvy web surfers. By the end of last week, almost twice as many computer users had downloaded Firefox 4 as had downloaded IE9—despite Microsoft’s one-week headstart.

It’s hard to ascribe purely altruistic motives to the massive army of open source developers around the globe. While most do it for fun, or for social status and reputation, there are within the community some zealous activists with strong beliefs in their cause.

At Ames Research Center in Mountain View last week, NASA officials huddled with 700 engineers, programmers and tech industry leaders to consider the future of open-source coding. The Open Source Summit was put together by a small group including Nicholas Skytland, director of NASA’s Open Government Initiative.

“We as a culture, and American society, we need to embrace open source more,” Skytland said in an interview Tuesday. “We tend to be a more closed society.

“I’m excited. We’re releasing open source software—that’s a great step. But I really have higher hopes for us. I want it to be the norm, not the exception.”

One goal of the summit—which naturally had 545 of its participants participating online—was to start a discussion that identifies and potentially solves issues currently hampering the nation’s space exploration efforts.

Speakers included a who’s who of the open-source world: Pascal Finette, director of Mozilla Labs; Robert Sutor, VP of open systems at IBM, Chris Wanstrath, CEO and co-founder of Github; Brian Stevens, CTO and VP of Engineering at Red Hat; and Chris DiBona, Google’s open source and public sector programs manager.

An equal focus was put on collaboration between government, corporate and individual programmers, who often improve code while sitting in front of computers at all hours of the day.

Tech theorist Eric S. Raymond, in a series of books (aptly given away under an Open Publication License),  argues that the open source culture thrives because it is a “gift culture” that has adapted to abundance rather than scarcity.

“In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away,” he writes. By giving away high-quality code,


open source developers are rewarded with an elevated reputation among their peers.

In fact, most open source projects are managed in a hierarchical fashion with moderators in charge of approving “commits” (additions or changes) to their modules. Akin to the career path of a writer becoming an editor, to become a moderator one must first become an excellent developer.

Google Chrome, the search engine colossus’ answer to Firefox, has proven to be a pioneer in allowing programmers to flex their creative muscles.

Google engineers are given 20 percent of their work week to focus on personal projects that can result in boundary-breaking technical advancements or simply make for a more user-friendly experience.

“We’re very supportive of open source,” says Marta George, a Google spokesperson. “Of course the manager knows what they’re working on, but they don’t have to show it. We don’t monitor it. The Google culture is very open to innovation.”

Google’s open source guru, Chirs DiBona sees open source as “the ultimate expression of computer engineering.”

“It’s what happens when the market needs something so bad it does it itself,” DiBona said in a December 2010 interview.  “If you look at the rise of the internet, the commercial providers simply couldn’t keep up—and they were too expensive, but they simply could not keep up with the demand for new internet services and sites and the rest.

“So open-source developers, literally the people that were going to consume these services anyway, said, ‘Well, you know what, we’re not getting enough service from the commercial world. We have to write our own software.’ So, that’s what they did.”

A majority of companies use open source software for some of their internal and externally-facing systems. According to the latest data from Netcraft, Apache dominates the global web server market with close to 60 percent market share; the closest competition is Microsoft’s proprietary IIS software with only 22 percent of the market.

While this is bad news for Microsoft, it’s great news for every other company in the world that requires a reliable and cheap web server.

Indirectly, companies pay for open source development when their staff programmers contribute to projects. Instead of taking on all of the risks and costs of building and maintaining an internal system, businesses are spreading out the risks by giving away the software they develop in exchange for an active community of development and support.

As long as it’s not in one of the company’s core competencies, the company can still exercise a competitive advantage even though the entire industry has access to the same software. For example, competition is still fierce among all the companies running Apache for their web services, and no single company has had to carry the full costs of Apache’s development. Instead, many companies have banded together to financially support the Apache Foundation—Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AMD, HP, IBM and even Microsoft are listed as Platinum and Gold sponsors.

Still, there remain obstacles in getting everyone to agree that open-source coding and licenses free of patents are in the programming communities’ best interest. NASA has released 20 licenses in the last year out of Ames but only three were completed in collaboration with outside influences, Skytland says.

There are no metrics in place to quantify how many people currently play a role in open-source coding within corporate environments versus those doing their programming outside of work.

“That’s asking kind of like what companies allow you to check out Facebook on their time at work,” says Skytland, before adding that he thinks the movement is still more centralized at a grassroots level.

“Government has a really long ways to go,” he says, “and I don’t think government can reach its potential unless we embrace open source.”