Back to the future: open source everything

Open source proponents claim that open source is a far better example of free market capitalism than proprietary software can ever be.

THE OPEN AND CLOSED REGIONS of the software world are poles apart, and not even the open source community can agree on the terminology. So, secure in the knowledge that fear, uncertainty and doubt are rife, how do you navigate the open source minefield?

Open source code generally evolves through the cooperation of a community of developers and is made available to the public, enabling anyone to make a copy, modify or redistribute it without paying royalties or licence fees. Traditionally, software vendors have distributed their products with no access to the source code, making modifications technically impossible.

Linux is a particular open source operating system and kernel. Unlike closed source operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, its underlying source code can be freely used, modified, improved and distributed. It’s important to note the following: while all Linux software is open source, not all open source software is Linux.

Dave Lane of Egressive, a Christchurch-based open source developer and bespoke software house, is a system administrator and prominent member of the open source community. “Linux is a very widely publicised example of open source, but it’s far from the only one,” he stresses.

Lane suggests browsing online resource, SourceForge, a website for developers which hosts more than 18,000 open source projects and provides work for 145,000 programmers.

Open source proponents claim that open source is, in fact, a far better example of free market capitalism than proprietary software can ever be. Richard Waid, technical director of IOPEN Technologies, a Christchurch-based open community of design and software development companies, says the open source community is a “capitalist-free” market, where anything can be modified or developed for the most worthy bidder, whether that criteria be price or something else.

Proprietary software, meanwhile, can only exist in a world regulated by public institutions such as the courts, police and military. It depends on the ability to enforce purposely anti-competitive constructs such as patents, non-disclosure agreements, restrictive licences, bundling deals and preferential supplier deals.

Open source, say its proponents, minimises such barriers to participa­tion: anyone can write software using free tools, and anyone can learn from the open source software that’s already out there. The only limitation is that, in most cases, they may not subsequently “close” the “open” source software they’ve built upon.

Can I borrow that?

From the outset the free software coders were pragmatic. They didn’t waste any time reinventing wheels or fixing stuff that wasn’t broken. Eric Raymond, the author of the influential series of essays entitled The Cathedral and the Bazaar, tells us that Linus Torvalds didn’t try to write the Linux operating system from scratch.

Instead, he started by reusing code and ideas from Minix, a Unix-like oper­ating system for PC clones that provided “scaffolding” for what would eventually become Linux.

Raymond says that by the time he himself became aware of Linux in early 1993, he had already been involved in Unix and open source development for ten years. He was one of the first GNU contributors in the mid-1980s and had released open-source software onto the net, developing or co-developing several programs that are still widely used today. He thought he knew how development was done, but “Linux overturned much of what I thought I knew,” he says.

While open source development is certainly very different from Microsoft’s approach to software development, it’s important to note that Microsoft itself has teams developing open source internally, and it has recently inked a deal with open source company SugarCRM.

Novell and a number of other big proprietary software names — IBM, HP, Sun, SAP and Oracle — are increasingly becoming major open source software distributors themselves. In fact, Novell has reinvented itself as a value-added open source company, standardising all of its offerings on a Linux platform. It also bought German Linux distribution provider Suse, and Ximian, a company that spearheaded a number of open source applications and libraries including Mono, Gnumeric, Red Carpet and Evolution.

It runs the internet

Douglas Rushkoff has written ten best-selling books on media, technology and culture. He’s also a regular media commentator and blogger. A chapter in his latest book, Get Back In The Box: Innovation From the Inside Out, is called “Open Source Everything”. Rushkoff told Computerworld there will continue to be turf wars as long as there are companies steeped in what he calls the “scarcity model” that was developed during the Renaissance.

“Whenever a technology comes along that holds the possibility of generating abundant prosperity, it will necessarily threaten those whose prosperity seems to be dependent on monopolising a resource,” says Rushkoff. Although it’s hard to develop businesses that run counter to the prevailing system, he says technological innovation will continue to be led by people and institutions with no-profit motives. “Nothing at all of any significance fuelling the internet was developed by any for-profit company,” he points out.

“The internet itself is a phenomenon built on open source and open standards,” agrees Lane of Egressive. “If it wasn’t for open standards, the ‘lingua franca’ of technology, the internet would never have emerged at all.”

It would be true to say that most of the original technologies that form the infrastructure of the internet are based on open standards:

• The TCP/IP protocol all computers use to communicate with other computers

• DNS (Domain Name Services), the technology that converts www.computer­world.co.nz to its real internet address (210.48.100.11) when you type in a website or email address

• The HTTP protocol used to make requests of web servers and web services

• The SSL protocol that provides encrypted data transfers when you enter your credit card details into a website

• HTML, CSS, XML (the languages of web pages) are open standards defined at w3c.org

• Email and all its surrounding protocols (SMTP, POP, IMAP) were developed by universities and publicly funded scientific institutions.

It’s a convoluted topic with more scope for enraging and disaffecting people than any other in information technology. Even the words “open source” are loaded. Wikipedia’s entry on open source comes with a warning that it contains “weasel words” that supposedly smuggle bias into statements by attributing opinions to anonymous sources.

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