Oregon city builds a reputation as a hub for software revolution

Portland is benefiting from the arrival of high-tech companies with an 'open source' philosophy.

As a kid in the 1980s, Bart Massey spent hours tinkering with computer programs, writing his own source code and then sharing it with friends. He and his buddies comprised a small band of curious computer whizzes with no agenda, and certainly no rules. Over time, that code-sharing would come to be known as open source: "We just didn't have a name for it then," says Mr. Massey, today a computer science professor at Portland State University.

Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but too many programmers just makes software better. For a multibillion-dollar company that's spent decades protecting its code with the rigor of Fort Knox, that's a radical notion. But open source is fast gaining converts, shattering traditional business models, and, in the process, transforming Portland into one of the world's open source hubs.

Consider the following:

• Companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel have developed their own open-source labs here.

• Linus Torvalds, author of Linux, the first mainstream open-source operating system, moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to work at the Open Source Development Lab in Portland.

• In mid-October the city hosted the first Government Open Source Conference, a gathering for state and municipal technology managers interested in using open-source software in the public sector.

• Most recently, Oregon Gov. Theodore Kulongoski announced a $350,000 contribution from Google to develop open-source software, hardware, and curricula at Oregon State University, which boasts an Open Source Lab, and Portland State University. Portland's standing as a hub for open-source development is not lost on the governor, who is eager to bring even more jobs and investment to what he calls a "burgeoning open technology cluster."

More Firefox than Che

Portland - a city where T-shirts on college campuses are more likely to sport Firefox than Che - is now seeing venture capitalists descending upon it, proof that all the heavyweight open-source talent here may indeed power the local economy.

"I think we'll see a sharp uptick in entrepreneurial activities because of Portland's global influence," says Lavonne Reimer, executive director of the Open Technology Business Center in Beaverton, a suburb.

On the surface it seems odd that the very companies who build and sell their own proprietary software would welcome the arrival of free, open-source rivals. When IBM built its Linux Technology Lab, many observers were left scratching their heads.

But by using open-source systems like Linux, companies can eliminate the cost of building and maintaining their own operating systems, Ms. Reimer says. That leaves them free to focus on other products and services - such as chips or hardware - that are more important to their futures.

From telecommunications to petroleum to government, most industries are choosing Linux over proprietary operating systems because it cuts costs and offers superior security and flexibility, says John Charlson, spokesman at IBM, whose Linux center in Beaverton employs hundreds of programmers. (The more people with access to the system, ironically, the fewer the problems because it is so heavily scrutinized and monitored.)

"Today if you look at the business model, it's relatively stagnant," says Richard Warren, vice president of IBM's Systems and Technology Group in Beaverton. "We're stealing markets from each other, so by creating a new computer paradigm you open the marketplace up." Entire countries - Brazil, China, France, and Australia - are turning to Linux, which has the ultimate effect of expanding the overall number of computer users.

Seen more broadly, the open-source spirit is proving viable as a means of developing many kinds of intellectual property. The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, for one, hands over all writing and editing rights to the end user - anyone can post anything - and boasts upward of 1 million entries, each typically informed by several perspectives. News media, for another, are toying with opportunities provided by citizen journalism, where power is handed over to the masses to report on and discuss the news of the day. Even musicians like David Bowie have given away their music to encourage deejays to make mixes.

'There's something new here'

In all of this, one underlying theory is at play: The wider the ownership is spread, the greater the contribution from those "owners" and the better the product.

"Large corporations are realizing that there's method in this madness. Their interests are at a different scale than individuals, but it's kind of the same thing: They want something, and they can't really afford to get it unless they work together," says Ward Cunningham of the Eclipse Foundation, a nonprofit project aimed at developing universal tool sets, and the inventor of the wiki, the software Wikipedia uses. "There's something new here - a cooperation in software, especially software that is clearly valuable."

The open-source revolution has been slow but steady.

"We've grown to have this blind expectation that revolutions will happen on exponential curves - that overnight we'll go from 3 percent acceptance to 70 percent acceptance - and if that doesn't happen it's a failure," Mr. Massey says. "Open source hasn't happened on that curve, but we'll pick up 3 percent for a lot of years to get to 70 percent."

When the software and processes of putting things together is all open source, he predicts, the end user will pay only for the parts with which to put computers together.

"That's a tempting vision," he says.

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