The Origins and Future of Open Source Software

The Return of Open Source Computing

So in the midst of UNIX wars, browser wars and commercial competition, the emergence of open source software as a more and more accepted part of the computing environment comes as something of a surprise. The catalyst is Microsoft, or rather the reaction of Microsoft's Silicon Valley competitors to the Seattle-based company's monopolistic practices. The problem for Silicon Valley firms, despite the pride in the geography-driven technology innovation of the region, is that such proximity does not automatically create the standards that propel economic growth, especially in the absence of a firm alliance with government. Technology firms have tried to create substitutes for government through private consortia like CommerceNet and other standards bodies, but none have the core of public-interested officials that government can wield to transcend particularistic company concerns in favor of the public interest.

The reality is that despite the Internet's success, many of the firms in the region continually struggle with the danger of proprietary technologies upsetting the trust needed to sustain the collaborative model that has fueled the growth of firms in the region. At the top of the list of dangers is of, course, Microsoft. Microsoft used a combination of its early alliance with IBM and hardball tactics to build its proprietary operating system monopoly on the desktop. From that base, Microsoft would extend its proprietary standards into the market for large-scale business computing, formerly the province of mainframes or UNIX-based network servers. While the Internet at first appeared as a danger to Microsoft, even a dagger at its throat, Microsoft also saw that success in molding those standards in a proprietary direction could extend the company's control throughout the whole world of corporate computing.

Microsoft responded with a combination of in-house software applications and developer tools optimized for its proprietary standards, creating an all-pervasive computing environment that promised any corporation that its needs would be met. The Microsoft solution might be less innovative than any particular competitor, but Microsoft's very completeness and pervasiveness across all sectors of computing would make up for its rigidity.

In fact, Microsoft's rigidity could be an advantage when compared to the weak standards that pervaded the UNIX corporate environment by the 1990s. After the heyday of the 80s when government purchasing requirements had enforced a broad UNIX standard on the industry, the industry had divided into warring UNIX camps and left customers uncertain that their needs would be met in the fragmented UNIX environment. By 1997 Microsoft NT computer servers were outselling UNIX servers.[17] It was clear that in the absence of strong standards and government support for such standards, proprietary models had a decided advantage in yielding the market stability and monopoly rents that a company like Microsoft could reap.

Even as Silicon Valley firms sought to finesse innovation from the economic pressure of Windows competition, the UNIX wars made clear that strong open standards were the key to the region competing economically against proprietary steamrollers like Microsoft. Consortia like CommerceNet built around Internet standards were the first step in the process, but companies like Sun and Netscape saw the need for broader solutions that would expand open standards from the operating system to the tools used by programmers. The Java language, with its promise that any program would be able to run on any computer, no matter its hardware or operating system, became a part of that strategy.

With the need to generate stronger global support for its standards, Netscape took the unprecedented step in March 1998 of publicly revealing its browser source code--the usually top-secret guts of any program. Netscape invited developers to modify the code and even resell their own version as long as any modifications to the code were republished publicly and made according to the terms of their license, and subject to coordination by the development team at Faced with the onslaught of Microsoft's proprietary approach, Netscape decided that the regional commercial commitment to developing standards was insufficient. It needed to marshal the resources of the global programming community, and it needed to open its code to gain the kind of trust needed to ensure their support.

The idea, harking back to the original ARPANET vision, was to invite the participation of the whole Net community in developing the tools and standards embedded in the browser software. "It's no longer Netscape alone, pushing the client software forward, but now it's really the whole Net," said Bob Lisbonne, Netscape's senior vice president for client products at the time. "For Netscape, this gives us a way to engage the creative, innovative abilities of literally orders of magnitude more people than we could ever--really any commercial software company could ever afford to just put on their payroll.[18]" With hacker enthusiasts lauding the decision, thousands of developers would download the source code within the first day and major modifications of Navigator were released onto the Net within weeks by independent developers from all over the country. The idea was that Netscape could release existing modifications in its continual upgrades of both browser and server software. What it lost by giving up control of its code, it would make up through selling customized business versions and server software, and by preventing Microsoft's control of standards which would be Netscape's deathnell.

Netscape's action highlights the continued importance of public-interest-oriented software development. This type of software has survived much of the privatization of the Internet. Most dramatically, despite the focus on the Microsoft-Netscape rivalry, the most popular Web server on the Internet was neither company's but rather a free, open source server called Apache. After the NCSA developed its Mosaic browser software and its original server software, the NSCA as part of the government privatization had ceased aggressively updating its software. Instead, a geographically dispersed group of software programmers, some at universities and some in private business, began collaborating in 1995 to update the NCSA server to increase its power and manageability. Most of the programmers participated out of altruism. The result was a Web server that in 1997 was used in 44 percent of Internet sites, compared to just 16 percent that used Microsoft and 12 percent using Netscape's software. And that list of sites included McDonalds, UUNET Technologies, HotWired, Yahoo Inc., CSB, the FBI and IBM, which passed over its own Lotus Domino server in favor of Apache when it put its "Big Blue-Gary Kasparov" chess match on the Internet.[19] Similarly, one of the favorite Web programming languages is a free and open language named perl which has similarly been modified and improved through a global network of collaborators coordinated by programmer Larry Wall.

Netscape also announced that it would begin making all its software applications available in the Linux operating system, a freeware version of UNIX that has become the fastest expanding operating system in the world with three to nine million copies on computers around the world. Linux was described by Wired magazine in 1997 as "[Window] NT's most serious competitor, the only viable alternative to the Microsoft monoculture."[20]

Remarkably, Linux was born in 1991 by a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland whose first name, Linus, led to the naming of the language. At that point, a whole series of free and open source UNIX tools had been developed by programmers connected to GNU (a self-referencing title standing for GNU is Not Unix) foundation, itself founded by one of the original MIT hackers, Richard Stallman, who objected to the increasing commercialization of university research. Stallman and his fellow GNU hackers had, rightly, feared that despite the fact that popular UNIX standards like Sun's were broadly distributed, they still remained under private ownership and could and would be used for proprietary advantage under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Which is what happened by the early 90s.

The community of GNU programmers and users sought a non-proprietary UNIX alternative to escape the new UNIX standards wars between competing commercial providers. What this network of free software developers lacked was the core of the operating system, called a "kernel," which would tie all the GNU UNIX tools together into an alternative to the commercial UNIX competitors. Linus Torvalds wrote that kernel and from his university post would use the Internet to coordinate improvements in this new operating system with help from hundreds of enthusiasts around the globe.

Based on what GNU called "copyleft" principles, the Linux operating system could be distributed freely or packaged with documentation and sold for modest amounts backed by technical support by companies like Red Hat, Caldera and Cygnus Solutions. Extremely popular in developing nations like South Africa, Cuba, India and the Philippines, Linux also began to eclipse other forms of UNIX in the U.S. partly because of its price but also because many people considered it technically the best operating system in existence. Linux was the first operating system to include Java capability, so every increase in Java programs adds to its functionality.[21]

Netscape's source code unveiling, and its announced support for Linux, throws into relief the different economies of trust that separate proprietary standards and open source standards. With proprietary standards like Microsoft's, everyone trusts (or fears) that Microsoft will enforce whatever standards it dictates from its company-specific development. The result is that hardware and software partners on such proprietary efforts develop products anywhere to their uniform standard. Alternatively, collaborators on open source software can increasingly use the Internet to build trust based on altruism and the hacker ethic of achievement without needing to share any geography--the extreme example being Linus Torvalds direction of the evolution of Linux. Without expectation of financially capturing the social benefits of their creation, they are free to innovate without restriction. On the other hand, with more diffuse commercial standards, collaborators need the repeated interactions and day-to-day commercial interactions of shared geography, like Silicon Valley, to generate financial gain while assuring that multiple collaborators all profit from innovation.

With Microsoft's proprietary approaches gaining ground, Netscape and other Silicon Valley actors reluctantly saw their alternative commercial standards losing ground and saw an alliance with the global open source software model as necessary for survival. They would forgo some profits in order to maintain the priority on innovation that gives them an advantage in the remaining commercial aspects of technology development.

A range of new partners to Linux and other open source software have emerged. Corel--maker of the WordPerfect wordprocessor--announced it would be releasing a full suite of office applications for Linux. Inprise (formerly Borland) announced that its Interbase database server would be ported to Linux. IBM announced that its next set of Web tools, called WebSphere Application Server, would fully support the Apache web server. IBM also announced it would join the Apache Group of collaborative developers and be contributing code to improve the Apache server. Sendmail creator Eric Allman has created a startup business to sell easy-to-use administrative tools to support the core free Sendmail program. Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, IBM, and Silicon Graphics have all indicated plans to install and support Linux for their hardware customers. Lotus will release a version of its Domino and Notes collaborative software for Linux later in 1999.

Next: Where to Go from Here--Ending the Microsoft Monopoly