Open source can help the developing world, but it's not without challenges

Open source at Expand

Many see open source technology as an ideological tool -- a way to promote freedom in a world of closed, proprietary systems. For Canonical's Jono Bacon, Mozilla's Stormy Peters and Wikimedia's Tomasz Finc, it's more about improving humanity. Speaking at Expand, they argued that open code connects the developing world and delivers meaningful local content. However, the trio is also aware of the potential pitfalls, such as fragmentation. They know that a successful open platform isn't born overnight.

Bacon, Finc and Peters all agreed that the next wave of people going online would likely do so with a smartphone first, if not exclusively. Open source would not only give them more control over that mobile experience, but let them create and experience content that was previously out of reach. Peters noted that Firefox OS both gives emerging markets full access to the web and helps developers write apps tailored to specific regions. Apps for South America, for example, could accommodate the area's love of prepaid phone services. To Finc, open technology is crucial for even the most basic needs; something as simple as an open source font lets locals read content in their native languages.

Open source is crucial for mobile in the developing world, but faces big challenges

The newest batch of open mobile software wouldn't necessarily fall victim to previous mistakes, Bacon said. Android has been subject to fragmentation, but Ubuntu and Firefox were both designed to keep as many users as possible on the same page. However, everyone on the Expand panel was quick to point out that software by itself isn't enough. Bacon contended that projects like Ubuntu have to integrate with not just other devices and services, but also the community. That's the hard part, he said -- many companies aren't used to exposing their work to the public. Peters has been assuaging some of those fears by showing that open source and commercial success aren't mutually exclusive. Although Firefox Marketplace includes its share of paid apps, its open code lets anyone build their own store.

There are also cost barriers, although companies are tackling these challenges in different ways. Mozilla is focused on the initial device cost; Peters stressed that Firefox OS phones like the ZTE Open sell for less than $100 off-contract, or well below the prices of most competing hardware. While Wikimedia's open nature doesn't lower costs by itself, Finc noted that Wikipedia Zero eliminates steep data fees, giving many poorer cellphone owners access to a vast knowledge base.

Whatever the obstacles, it's clear that Bacon, Finc and Peters all see open source technology as both feasible and worthwhile. Finc believes that opening a platform forces developers to rethink and improve their tools, such as Wikipedia's editing and photo upload suites. Bacon, meanwhile, sees the open approach inspiring action in those who'd otherwise sit on the sidelines. He recounted the story of a young Ubuntu contributor who would walk four hours to an internet café just to submit his work -- openness drove this child to make a difference.