Universities foster the next big tech innovation through open source

The next big breakthrough in technology may not come from their own development teams, but from groups of students and educators collaborating through the Internet.
Written by Andrew Yu, Modo Labs and , Contributor

Commentary - While many technical innovations are produced by massive teams of developers at industry giants such as Google and Microsoft, a number of game-changing technologies are sprouting from grass roots efforts at universities. Through the advent of open source software, multiple developers at colleges around the globe are able to contribute code and innovate new developments without a penny of commercial investment. Tech leaders and investors alike are surprised to learn how the next big breakthrough in technology may not come from their own development teams, but from groups of students and educators collaborating through the Internet.

Collaborations between universities have been advancing the state of technology for many years. Successful university collaborations have been adopted by NASDAQ leaders and become part of our everyday lives. While unknown to the layman, the Kerberos network authentication protocol grew from a project at MIT and is now used by virtually all of the top tech companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft. What does that mean to you? Every time you login to Windows with your username and password, you’re using Kerberos. It’s part of the default configuration within Windows, and it all started with students and faculty collaborating with network services provided by Project Athena. With funding from IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1983, Kerberos grew from a university-based open source project to its inclusion in every major operating system.

Fast Internet connections have played a key role in open source collaboration long before the popularity of the web. Many years prior to high-speed Internet connections becoming ubiquitous in our homes, college campuses were wired and communicating on the Internet. Fast Internet connections and cutting edge hardware were often important factors for tech-savvy students and professors choosing one university over another for their studies or career development.

Technology vendors can immediately make use of open source innovations underway on college campuses at little or no cost. Corporations and universities around the globe are constantly pursuing a unified vision: to find new ways to solve technical challenges. Leading schools often have a number of IT experts and have deployed enterprise-class IT systems,, enabling low-cost R&D and experimentation in a live environment. They encounter the same security issues, federal regulations and other challenges that commercial enterprises manage, so they can solve real-world problems.

The nature of an academic setting fosters exploration, leading to outside-the-box innovations that rarely come from harried programmers in commercial shops working toward specific projects in limited time frames. Colleges are steeped in the concept of sharing and collaboration – an entirely different environment from the corporate environment where restrictive NDAs and privacy are ever present. Absent of revenue and profitability demands, students collaborating through open source projects can work alongside corporate partners and sponsors to develop new technologies with win-win results. They are free to take risks.

Kurogo is a fairly new project that’s rapidly gaining traction. Based on the highly regarded MIT Mobile Framework, it has evolved through open source code collaborations. Dozens of leading universities have contributed to Kurogo, from MIT and Harvard University to top schools in Europe and Asia. The Kurogo platform enables developers to easily create rich mobile sites and native apps for iPhones, iPads and other popular mobile devices. Corporate enterprises in the financial services, healthcare and telecommunications industries have already used the free open source framework to build mission-critical mobile sites and apps.

A number of organizations and websites provide a forum for technology innovators to meet and share innovations. The Common Solutions Group, founded by the former CIO of Cornell University, was established so that developers at major research universities can collaborate and advance open source projects. Similarly, iMobileU is an online community of higher education institutions working together to innovate new solutions and approaches for mobile development.

Despite past resistance to open source software, the world’s largest and most successful technology vendors have embraced collaborative solutions and caused a significant sea change. With commercial support options available for most open source solutions, corporate enterprises have the best of both worlds, taking advantage of free software innovations while having the peace of mind provided by technical assistance around the clock. By partnering and collaborating with universities in the early stages of development, commercial software developers can help design tomorrow’s technologies.

Working together, university students, instructors and corporate IT teams continue to rapidly advance technology innovations. Technology solutions from college campuses continue to deliver competitive advantages in commercial organizations that adopt these new, cutting-edge innovations. With the ability to contribute code and constantly add features and functionality to open source projects, we can expect to see many more significant applications grow from a single dorm room to worldwide adoption.

Andrew Yu is the CEO of Modo Labs, a leading provider of content delivery solutions for mobile platforms and devices. Prior to his role with Modo Labs, Yu was the mobile platform manager, architect and an instructor at MIT. He is the author of the book “The OS Wars: Smartphone systems battle for markets.”

With over two decades of experience in high technology, Marshall Vale is the CTO of Modo Labs. Prior to Modo Labs, Marshall was the VP of Product Development for Your File System and the Director of Software Engineering for iRobot Corporation. Earlier in his career, Marshall served at the Manager of the Software Development and Integration Team at MIT.

Disclosure: Vale was previously the team leader for Kerberos at MIT. Modo Labs provides commercial support for Kurogo.

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