Imagine open source software as a reservoir. Anyone is welcome to take a refreshing dip in its waters, or go canoeing on a sunny afternoon. In the same way, any developer can use freely available open source software from communities to build some really remarkable products or services.

But the water in the reservoir is not exactly “ready for consumption” yet, as Damien Wong puts it. Open source software directly taken from communities can be an ideal platform for learning and experimentation, but there may not be enough assurance that the end product designed using the software is reliable, secure and effective, says the VP and GM of Asian Growth & Emerging Markets at open source company Red Hat.

For government and industry, open source innovation can – under the right conditions – help speed up time to market, enable new ways of working, and transform businesses. Wong shares his experiences working with Malaysia, and his three key takeaways for open source innovation.

1. Government agencies can speed up time to market – at a lower cost.

In the early 2000s, the Malaysian government was already interested in the idea of open source software, believing it was an enabler of innovation within the public sector. However, they had concerns around how safe it would be for citizens to use. “What about the security, what about reliability, patches? And if something goes down, who do I call?” Wong points out.

Here is where Red Hat came in with a “shared development model” to help the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) transform their development process. Shared development is where the cost of developing new innovations and applications is lower than in traditional development, Wong explains.

MAMPU had developed an open source programme for any government agency to come in and develop and host applications quickly on its datacentres. Red Hat helped them develop an agile DevOps approach to building and designing applications, using the OpenShift container-based platform. Red Hat’s teams created this platform from open source software, and secured and perfected it.

The DevOps approach has helped MAMPU’s app-building teams to work more effectively. While the group of ten developers previously took a week to create and deploy an application, now, supported by the platform, it takes them three days – and sometimes just ten minutes.

2. Open source levels the playing field for startups.

In the hands of developers, the waters of the open source reservoir can be processed and transformed into polished products – much like a bottle of water to quench your thirst. Open source innovation is how ride-hailing app Grab, or apartment rental service AirBnB, sprung into existence. “Can you imagine a world without some of these conveniences we see today?” Wong notes.

A small but scrappy startup can download software that is available to the open source community and create a genius new service. And later, using enterprise grade open source software from companies like Red Hat, they can now compete with larger companies that can easily drop millions of dollars to develop software from scratch, Wong continues.

“What was once regarded as a strength and a barrier to entry has, in fact, become a stumbling block.”
In fact, large companies typically have a “technical debt” where their existing technology is monolithic and “difficult to change”. Smaller and younger enterprises are not hindered by this, Wong points out. “What was once regarded as a strength and a barrier to entry has, in fact, become a stumbling block,” he explains. “They have to undo that in order for them to compete with the agility and flexibility you get with the fintechs.”

This is most apparent in the financial services industry. Central banks across Asia are increasingly issuing virtual banking licenses to select fintech companies, allowing them to operate as trusted online banks. It lowers the bar for fintechs that may not normally have the resources to compete with the banking behemoths. “You don’t need physical branches or ATM networks, which are very expensive to maintain.”

The rate at which open source innovation has changed the world is quite astounding – so much so that it has in fact surpassed proprietary innovation. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella was famously quoted as being “all in” on open source after acquiring software developer platform GitHub last year. “No one can out-innovate an entire community,” Red Hat’s Wong emphasizes.

3. Telcos can stay competitive in the 5G era.

A third area of open source innovation is telecoms, particularly with 5G networks looming on the horizon. With 5G comes internet speeds of up to a thousand times faster than 4G – making smart city innovations more within reach than ever before. “Suddenly, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence in healthcare are viable,” says Wong.

Here is an opportunity for telcos to evolve beyond providing infrastructure, Wong believes. They could also provide value-added services, such as faster bandwidths or “virtual superhighways”, that will be a backbone for new smart city innovations. At the moment, many of these innovations are stuck in the theoretical or prototype stage, constrained by the lack of superfast network speeds that they need to work properly, Wong adds.

Telcos will need to become more comfortable with the pace of change. With the advent of VOIP calls, made possible by chat apps like WhatsApp, telcos have suffered from losses of traditional voice revenue. Wong makes a compelling point: “The world has changed – do we focus on infrastructure or do we focus on the services that customers have come to expect, in order to make their lives better and more enriched?”

Open source is at the heart of the innovations that make up our modern lives – and done right, can help spur a thriving digital economy. It enables a spring of possibilities – and all that is needed are a few talented and determined folks, and a flood of ideas.