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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.

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Politically, a shift to open-source can be a digital declaration of independence in an era when the United States and its software industry are not universally trusted.

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"There have been rumors for years that US intelligence agencies have persuaded all North American suppliers to put 'back doors' into software" to allow government cyberspies to keep tabs on sensitive information abroad, Mr. Kusnetzky says. "Vendors claim it's not true, but those reassurances do not stop the professional pessimists" who head foreign intelligence services. Even if a US software company offers to show its program's proprietary code to foreign officials, as Microsoft has to China, he adds, it's still hard to know if the code you saw is actually the code a company ships.

On the economic side, the software is essentially free. Installing a proprietary operating system - never mind the rest of the software it would need - on 10,000 computers could set a company or government back $15 million or more. With open-source, such as Linux, it may cost as little as the price of a download or the nominal cost of a distributor's "package," perhaps around $300.

Ironically, this on-the-cheap approach could substantially reduce software piracy in developing countries, some analysts say, because users can now get high- quality software free for the downloading.

Over the long term, he continues, countries recognize that their economic progress depends on their mastery of information technologies. Open-source software, with its global, free-wheeling, "stone soup" development approach, allows these countries to potentially shave 10 to 15 years off the time it would take them to nurture their own IT sectors at home. The reason: They have a world of expertise freely available.

Surveys indicate that the majority of programmers contributing to open-source software are professionals who donate their expertise to enhance their reputations in the community, to have the satisfaction of producing a set of code that fits immediately into an application, and to clean up others' code in a peer-review system that can be ruthless in its appraisals.

And the community is responsive. Kusnetzky cites an example in which a firm was developing a sophisticated software program. Its brightest developers found a problem they couldn't solve. The code was posted on the Web with pleas for help, and in an hour, an elegant solution came back. "The company didn't know the person, didn't know where he lived," he says.

Yet if the currency for development is information and ideas in the 21st century, where is the balancing point between the rapid innovation and responsiveness that collaborative projects can trigger and the longstanding legal structure designed to protect intellectual property rights?

That is a key question that must be addressed, says James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. This year, Mr. Lewis joined nearly 60 economists, lawyers, and technology experts in asking the 180-nation World Intellectual Property Organization to hold a meeting next year to examine whether that balance exists. Although the idea received a warm reception in Geneva, the US Patent and Trademark Office and lobbyists knocked on the WIPO's door. The meeting was canceled.

Yet the issues aren't going away. "The fear is that tight intellectual property protections will stifle innovation. That's clearly not 100 percent true," Lewis says. "But we need to find out where the friction occurs" and if need be make adjustments.

Yet the very nature of the information age and networking could render much of the question obsolete. In an era of networks, it will become almost impossible to distinguish the parenthood of particular ideas, Mr. Arquilla says.

"You're seeing the first whispers of a gale on the horizon," adds Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future.

Drawing the shades on Microsoft's Windows?

Linux software runs centralized computers known as servers. Analysts project that global shipments for the operating system will more than double by 2005, pushing it to the No. 2 spot behind Windows in the server market. Here are the number of server units sold or expected to sell, by operating system:

Operating system 2002 2005

Windows 3.169 million 3.992 million

Linux 425,000 1.018 million

UNIX 484,000 387,000

Other 532,000 349,000

Total: 4.610 million 5.746 million

Source: Gartner Dataquest (September 2003)