Who will build our digital future?
Galvanized by an idea, networks of strangers are challenging traditional firms with products that are just as good, more flexible - and often free.
As far as revolutions go, the opening salvo was muffled. But for those within earshot, the reverberations were far- reaching. Last month, China - the largest single potential market for almost anything - selected an upstart computer-operating system called Linux for installation on 1 million computers next year. Ultimately, the country plans to install similar systems on 100 million to 200 million machines.Skip to next paragraph
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But the deal represents much more than a software deal - or China's declaration of independence from software giant Microsoft. Analysts say it marks a significant victory for an emerging way of building things. Open and highly dispersed networks of motivated people are organizing around galvanizing ideas, often offering results of their work for free.
Such collaborative networks have long been part of human experience, from scientific research to terrorism. But as the approach moves into the commercial realm, especially the software business, it's challenging fundamental notions about who owns ideas and how best to foster innovation.
"Whether it's the rise of a global civil society, economic globalization, or the war against terrorism, all of these things are extremely information-dependent," says John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "The software issue offers us a whole new way of looking at the world."
Known as "open source" in the software world, the concept is spreading to other arenas. At the end of September, for instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., announced that it had reached its initial goal of posting course materials for 500 of its classes on the Web. Eventually, the school plans to post online material for virtually all its 2,100 formal courses. The material can be used freely by anyone and altered to meet local needs, as long as MIT is credited as the source for the material and no one charges for it.
Its name, "Open Courseware," is a direct nod to open-source software as its model. "The emergence of Linux was like a global barn-raising," bringing free, high-quality software to countries and institutions that otherwise might get left behind in the global information economy, says Steven Lerman, director of MIT's Center for Educational Computing Initiatives. "If we're successful, we'd like to see the same effect" in higher education.
Similar networks have been built around the human genome project and its descendants; the offering by artists of free online music; and a new research-journal project called the Public Library of Science. Even Al Qaeda has incorporated the approach to build its loosely knit network of terrorist cells.
Its most visible manifestation, however, remains software. Although the open-source approach had been around for decades, it took off in 1991, when Helsinki University student Linus Torvalds took a freely available, stripped-down version of UNIX software and modified it for a PC.
He posted the code; others began to use it, found and fixed bugs, added features, and "Linux" began to spread. Today, Linux has moved into a distant-but-solid second place behind Microsoft for software that runs network computers called "servers" in corporations, banks, and government offices worldwide. During the third quarter of 2003, the number of servers shipping with Microsoft's software grew by some 21 percent over the third quarter of '02. The number of servers shipped with Linux grew 51 percent, according to IDC, an analysis firm in Framingham, Mass.
An increasing number of countries, particularly in the developing world, are turning to Linux and open-source software. China's deal may help accelerate that, analysts say. In addition, China, Japan, and South Korea are reported to be joining forces on a new open-source software project that would focus on everything from new applications to a new operating system.
Even in the US, federal, state, and local governments are opening their IT departments to give open-source a closer look. In Washington, the Pentagon this year issued guidelines for the use of free and open-source software after a Mitre Corp. study revealed how broadly the programs were used in the Defense Department. Even some of open-source's most ardent supporters agree that the computer solutions it offers in some cases may not be as highly developed as those offered by proprietary programs. Thus users should be free to select the programs that best meet their needs.
Particularly in the developing world, Linux and other free and open-source software have economic and political attractions, says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president for systems software research at IDC.