The Origins and Future of Open Source Software


In a world where Microsoft increasingly threatens to dominate computing and the Internet, the strongest potential rival to its dominance is no longer its traditional commercial rivals but, surprisingly, a seemingly motley collection of free software tools and operating systems collectively dubbed "open source" software. Unlike most commercial software, the core code of such software can be easily studied by other programmers and improved upon--the only proviso being that such improvements must also be revealed publicly and distributed freely in a process that encourages continual innovation.

From an operating system called Linux, named for a student from Finland who wrote its core code, to a web server named Apache, put together as literally "a patchy" set of updates to older software by a band of volunteer programmers, these open source programs are emerging not just as inexpensive but as more robust and dynamic alternatives to commercial software.

While this phenomenon surprises some analysts, it should not surprise those with some sense of history. Open source software, largely funded by the federal government, was the wellspring of the creation of the whole computer industry and to this day still lies at the heart of how the Internet came into being. Through a combination of key funding agencies, administrative oversight of software standards and government purchasing rules, the federal government had helped stimulate open source software and open standards for decades. While such software never disappeared, its prominence was undermined by the privatization of the Internet and the commercialization of areas of software once dominated by open source options. Largely, this was due to the fact that in the early 1990s, the federal government pulled back from its commitment to open standards and support for open source software. This left the way open for increases in proprietary, incompatible software and for a company like Microsoft to seek to dominate the computing world with its own proprietary standard.

If open source software is reemerging as an important force, it is largely as a reaction against Microsoft itself. Competitors who themselves have seen their own proprietary alternatives sink under the Microsoft steamroller have suddenly seen alliances with open source software as a chance to halt the Windows monopoly. By itself, this alliance is unlikely to make open source software a real alternative to Microsoft and, more problematically, the opportunism of the alliance creates a whole set of tensions that need to be resolved for open source software to succeed.

What is needed is a revival of a federal government public policy that supports open source computing and strong standards that can again support the promise of open source innovation. This article will look at the past history of the government's support for open source computing, examine the lessons of its success and the results of its pullback in the early 1990s, and use this history to outline a policy program for the future.

Next: How Government Support Launched the Modern Computing Age