|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 36||April 20, 1998|
Bill Gates may envision the Internet as one vast toll-road for the Microsoft monopoly, but that isn't a vision shared by Brian Behlendorf, Eric Allman, Greg Olson, Larry Wall, Paul Vixie, or a host of other software developers whose names are not nearly as well known, but whose work we rely on every time we visit cyberspace. What these individuals have in common with each other -- and what distinguishes them from Gates -- is that the products they developed are available for free to anyone who wants to use them. Behlendor lead the team that developed the Apache web server, which runs more than 50% of all Web sites; Allman and Olson are responsible for sendmail, the program that routes more than 75% of the Internet's email, Wall developed the Perl computer language used to create and manage most web sites, and Vixie is responsible for BIND, the software that provides the domain name service (DNS) for the entire Internet.
These individuals, and other software developers who create "freeware" products, do so with publicly available source code, rather than proprietary source code like that used by Microsoft. The non-profit Software in the Public Interest uses the term "open source" to describe software programs created from publicly available source code and distributed for free. For a complete description of "open source" criteria, see http://www.opensource.org/.
Earlier this month, Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly & Associates, convened a gathering of the developers of key Internet technologies, whom he described as "open source pioneers." The meeting in Palo Alto, CA, was a forum for exploring ways to expand the use and acceptance of freeware development as a business model. A report on the O'Reilly forum, including a complete list of the software developers who participated, is at http://www.oreilly.com/.
NetAction Advisory Board member Judi Clark attended a press conference at the conclusion of the meeting. Judi sees the gathering as important to ensuring that the Internet remains open an accessible.
"One point that came out clearly was the need for the public to see and understand the significance of this model of software development, and its prevalence in our lives," said Clark. (For more on the significance of freeware, see Keith Porterfield's article "Software Wants to be Free."
The conference participants identified several reasons why the "open source" model of software development is so important to the future of the Internet:
Open source software is already running a significant portion of the Internet. This suggests that a collaborative business model, based on shared knowledge, can be as operationally feasible as a competitive model based on proprietary knowledge and private control of standards for interoperability.
Open source software development has already spawned numerous new businesses and businesses models, some focused on driving down the cost of distribution, and others targeting the need for customer support.
Open source software has social values -- such as a broad distribution of labor, and competition focused on implementation, rather than control of, standards -- which overlap the emergence of new business models.
Open source software development demonstrates new ideas by promoting widespread use of new products, one example of which is the evolution of the web browser. In its first, text-based form, the browser was created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (Centre Europe'enne pour la Recherche Nucle'aire). This was followed by a graphical browser, which was initially created as an "open source" product by Mark Andreesen and other grad students at NCSA (the National Center for Supercomputing Applications), at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Many of the SCSA students later participated in the formation of Netscape Communications Corporation.
Open source software development promotes consumer choice and helps keep the market honest. With the typical proprietary model of software development, companies are often compelled to market software with "bugs" in order to meet the demands of investors, and consumers are expected to accept the marketing, for profit, of defective products. Moreoever, when new versions of the product are released to correct the "bugs" found in the initial product, the new versions introduce yet another set of "bugs" which will eventually be fixed by yet another release.
Judi Clark is optimistic that the Palo Alto meeting will lead to further discussions, and to increased awareness among Internet users of the importance of supporting the continued development of software based on publicly available source code.
OMB Watch's Nonprofits and Technology Project is offering grants, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, and awards, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, to nonprofit organizations employing innovative uses of technology in public policy efforts.
For more information, see http://www.ombwatch.org/npt/.
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