Once upon a time, open source was a term used only within the software world. Today, the open source concept is being extended to many other industries -- from computing hardware to furniture. Here's a look at how the open source idea is eating the world beyond software.

The term open source software has existed since 1998. Before that, the only people who spoke about open source were in the intelligence community, where open source was a specialist term that referred to publicly available intelligence information.

This usage played a role in inspiring the invention of the term open source software, according to Bruce Perens's essay "The Open Source Definition" in the 1999 book Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. In that sense, open source software is itself an extension of a concept that originally applied to something entirely unrelated to software.

The Ever-Expanding Open Source Idea

Two decades after open source software was coined, the popularity of open source code is driving applications of the term open source to realms that have little or nothing to do with software.

Consider the following examples of the extension of the open source metaphor:

  • Open source hardware. Hardware and software are very different beasts. But open source software enthusiasts are making open source hardware, too, by providing specifications that are publicly documented.
  • Open source food. Recipes are like source code: They're the instructions that tell you (or your compiler) how to create an end-user product. So it only makes sense that there's an open source food movement, whose goals are to make cuisine replicable through freely shared recipes.
  • Blockchain currency. Blockchain or distributed ledger currency was made famous by anti-establishment Bitcoin users, but it is now being endorsed by the mainstream finance industry. At the heart of all implementations of blockchain currency is the idea that, when it comes to deciding who owns which resources, trust should be decentralized and community-based, rather than guaranteed by a centralized authority, like a bank or government. Open source software is similar in that it ascribes ownership of source code to a decentralized community of developers and users, rather than a proprietary software company. Open source software may not have been the sole catalyst for blockchain, but it no doubt played a role in helping gain buy-in for this new way of thinking about ownership.
  • Open source books. Can books be collaboratively written and freely shared in the same way as open source code? People behind projects like the Open Textbook Library think so.
  • Wikipedia. You can't mention open source books without mentioning Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia is probably the oldest and best-known example of a project that took many of its cues from the open source (and free) software movements. On Wikipedia, articles are written collaboratively by volunteer users, just as the source code of many open source programs is developed.
  • Furniture. The latest example of a company seizing on the open source model to sell something that has nothing to do with software is Ikea's "open source sofa." The furniture is designed to be easily customizable, just as open source software programs can be modified by users -- or by ecosystem partners. Does Ikea's open source sofa mean that there will be demand for VARs in the furniture world? That might be a stretch. But who knows?

The takeaway from all of the above is that the significance of open source software does not end with software. The idea behind open source is broadly applicable to realms that extend far beyond the IT world.