Computers and the Internet have changed the way we work, study, and interact, yet there are many things about computers and software which we find dissatisfying. Proprietary software is increasingly expensive and memory-hungry. Bugs, security flaws, and other errors appear in even the most trusted programs. Microsoft's monopoly control of the operating system market stifles innovation. Many computer systems are not equipped to handle the upcoming turn of the century, creating a multi billion-dollar problem and dire predictions of a global electronics breakdown.
An alternative method of software development exists, called open source software, which offers a very low cost solution to all of these problems. Open source is not a technology, but rather a different way of thinking about and organizing the software development process. Whereas traditional proprietary software development (which created most of the programs we use daily) adheres to the principle of strict protection of intellectual property found in the publishing industry, open source software (OSS) development is more of a collaborative process that has evolved along with the Internet.
Open source software is growing its market share in a few key areas because of its natural strengths of reliability, security, and low cost. However, open source has advantages on a broader level as well: it eliminates economic waste caused by the duplication of work, and it presents a challenge to harmful monopoly power in the software industry, such as the anticompetitive practices which are under scrutiny now in the Justice Department's antitrust case against Microsoft. It also provides a cost-effective solution to the Year 2000 problem. For these reasons, increased use of open source software serves more than private economic gain -- it serves a public good as well.
This paper will describe open source software, including a brief history of the idea, discuss its inherent strengths as both a private and a public good, explain why the government should be involved in promoting open source software development, and offer some recommendations for government action.
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