Open Source Software
By Rich Christie <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"Open source promotes software reliability and quality by supporting
review and rapid evolution of source code. To be certified as open source, the license of a
program must guarantee the right to read, redistribute, modify, and use it freely..."
-Eric Raymond, Webmaster of OpenSource.org
A computer, as defined by Infopedia is an "...electronic device that
can receive a set of
instructions, or program, by performing calculations on numerical data or by compiling and
correlating other forms of information...". However, if you were to ask most anyone from the
1990's techno-savvy generation, you would quickly see that computers are much more than an
electronic device that the definition states. That definition may have been correct many years
ago in the agricultural and industrial eras, but now in the information age the computer is the
backbone of the world's infrastructure. We live in a society that is not only run by people, but
also computerized information systems. Today's society uses computers for mass
communication, news, expression, research, business management, financial transactions,
weather forecasting, alarm systems, and the increasing trend of buying and selling over The
Internet known as E-commerce.
There are two categories of software for computers- system software
and application software.
Perhaps the most critical element of system software would be the operating system. An
operating system is the system software that allows the user to interact with the computer to
make it do various functions such as issue commands and run software applications. Without an
operating system, a computer is nothing more than a useless piece of equipment without
functionality. It is hardware that must be controlled by some form of software, which would be
the operating system. Virtually nothing can be done on a computer without an operating system.
Some popular examples of operating systems are MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows, Macintosh,
OS/2, UNIX, and many more. Application software is also very important because it is the
software used to accomplish a task, such as a word processor or spreadsheet program.
UNIX, an operating system developed by Ken Thompson of Bell Labs in
the late 1960's has
grown to be the most used operating system for computers with more power than PC's and is
heavily used in large organizations such as Universities, Corporations, Hospitals, etc. UNIX has
many variants which are often referred to as 'flavors' These flavors include Solaris, AIX, Xenix,
HP-UX, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and Linux just to name a few. The primary reason that UNIX is
used is because of it's multi-user and multitasking functionality. It is able to support many users
doing multiple tasks simultaneously, something operating systems like MS-DOS can not do
either of. When UNIX was first released, the code behind it was freely available. This led
UNIX to become somewhat dispersed and very widespread but has also added to making
UNIX one of the most popular and powerful operating systems in existence.
MINIX, a variant of UNIX that runs on x86 based personal computer was
Andrew Tanenbaum who is widely known for his works in operating system development. He
developed MINIX for his students and readers (he is both a professor and an author) to learn
about operating system fundamentals. He allowed the code to be freely available so that others
may study it and perhaps even improve it. MINIX was one of the very first few UNIX variants
that would run on an x86 PC, and compared to many of the UNIX variants on the larger
Supercomputers and Minicomputers, it was not very powerful. In 1989 a Finnish MINIX user /
computer science student began work on his own project to improve MINIX, explore the
possibilities of the 386 chip and to create his own free UNIX operating system for x86 PC's
with more power than MINIX. In 1991 he got it to a semi-working condition and posted a
message to a USENET news group on The Internet to and then Linux begun to take shape,
though it was never expected to become such an influential project to the open source
community, software community, and certainly not the mainstream media or business
Linux was to be an open source UNIX based operating system with POSIX
from scratch- no recycled code form MINIX or any other variant of UNIX- as such, Linux is
not truly a variant of UNIX but rather considered a 'clone' as it does not come from the same
source code base but is heavily molded after it.
In 1998, Linux grew in user base by 212% and experts estimate that there
are more than 7-10
million users worldwide. Additionally, Linux is used by more than 17% of all network servers
making the Linux operating system the fastest growing operating system including Microsoft
Linux is not a singular operating system either. Rather, it is dispersed
through what is known as
distributions. These distributions are the result of the Linux code being freely available and many
individuals, organizations, and businesses creating their own distribution such as Redhat,
Slackware, Debian, Mandrake, Caldera and many more. (Troan, "Linux Distribution
HOWTO"). These distributions always include many third party software packages such as
Sendmail, PERL, Apache, Emacs, Corel WordPerfect, DNS, Lynx, Netscape Communicator.
Each and everyone of those popular applications are examples of open source software.
Sendmail, created in 1979, has grown so large that over 75% of all the
e-mail servers on The
Internet use some version of Sendmail. (Seltzer, "Software Returns To Its Source"). So,
chances are, if you send an e-mail to someone then you're probably using Sendmail either
directly or indirectly. PERL, a high level scripting language created in 1986 by Larry Wall, is
used mainly for scripting of dynamic content on webpages and Common Gateway Interface
(CGI) applications. PERL is heavily used, though seldom seen by the end user. (Seltzer,
Apache is also an open source project and is an extremely popular webserver.
In fact, 54% of all
webservers run Apache. This includes Hotmail (the most popular free web based e-mail
service), Yahoo (one of the most popular websites on The Internet), and many, many more.
Yet another widely used open source product is the Emacs text editor.
or MAC users may not be too familiar with it, but for those that have worked with any UNIX
based operating system it is known to be one of the most popular text editors and is found on
almost every UNIX system. (Hughes, 102). The purpose of it is to edit text files, as well as to
program source code in be compiled at a later time. Perhaps a bit more popular to the
DOS/Windows world would be Corel WordPerfect, which for the Linux operating system is
not only free for download but also open source.
The most popular text based web browser Lynx is also open source, and
to no surprise. Lynx is
very popular on UNIX machines, and is often used for its speed and reliability. Though Lynx
can not show graphics, and a few of the other modern day conveniences of graphical web
browsers, it is still the most widely used text based web browser.
Another open source web browser is Netscape Communicator. It has only
been open source
since 1998, but already has shown great improvements in the overall product. It is expected that
Netscape Communicator 5.0 will have an entirely new hypertext markup language (HTML)
engine and will be able to render much HTML at a much faster pace. For example, the new
version will be able to render HTML tables approximately 20 times faster than before and will
conform better to new HTML standards. (Seltzer, "Software"). The Netscape browser is the
only web browser that has been able to keep Microsoft Internet Explorer from becoming a
monopoly, and even though MSIE is built into Windows 98 many users still opt to use
Netscape Communicator as an alternative.
The Domain Name System software, or DNS for short, is open source. This
is the software that
without it, would make the Internet a very difficult and confusing place to navigate because in
order to get to a website you would have to memorize an Internet Protocol (IP) address for
every site that you want to go to, such as 127.0.0.1 or 184.108.40.206 in dotted quad notation
instead of an easier to remember name like www.microsoft.com.
A recent popular example of this is that Apple has recently made the
decision for its MAC OS
X Server to be open source. (Hamilton, "Apple Releases New Operating System For
Webservers"). A decision that dumbfounded many, as Apple is the first commercial operating
system corporation to allow their product to be licensed as open source as thus freely available
and able to be modified and redistribute freely. Apple has been a long-time competitor of
Microsoft, and by itself was virtually crushed in the market. However, many analysts are now
saying that even if Apple by itself can not crack the Microsoft software monopoly, with the help
of Linux and other open source software it will certainly put a significant dent into Microsoft's
Apple has made the mistake in the past of not hopping on to a bandwagon
similar to the open
source software movement, only the last time it was not open source software- it was computer
hardware. Market analysts believe that one of the main reasons IBM and IBM compatible PC's
have a larger portion of the market than do Apple computer is because IBM licensed it's
hardware specifications to 'clones' and allowed companies to copy what they did, whereas
Apple did not (Meyers, p. 118). Perhaps Apple learned from their last mistake, and now see
this as a way to regain some market share.
Each and everyone of these pieces of software are open source and have
the computer and Internet world as we know it, and these are far from the only open source
software programs there are- there are many, many more. As you can see, there is no doubt
that open source software has made an incredible contribution to the information age.
It appears that open source software is the ideal solution- the software
is often times much more
powerful and efficient, more secure, easier to patch bugs, and of course free. However, many
people worry that this trend in open source software (especially with Linux showing signs of
becoming a mainstream operating system) will lead to a loss of jobs for commercial software
vendors. Lately, many people have stated that if anyone will bring down the Microsoft
monopoly on both desktop and server operating systems, it will be Linux (accompanied by the
army of open source software that works with Linux). It has proven to be technically superior,
more secure, an increasing user and application base, technical support, and is freely available
and compared to Microsoft's bulky and buggy operating systems (that have been attacked by
the courts for their illegal marketing practices) and are now infamous for their unreliability and
high costs, the outlook for open source software seems to be basking in glory and rightfully so.
The year 2000, to the computer industry, is a scary one since many computers
are expected to
crash. The crash will be caused by computer systems not being able to read the new millennium
properly, since most computers store dates as two digits such as 98 or 99, and not 1998 or
1999. So in the new millennium, the computer will read dates as 00 instead of 2000. (Nathan,
"Y2K Tab".) Most computers will be effected by it including Microsoft operating systems such
as Windows For Workgroups/Windows 3.x, Windows 95/98, and Windows NT. One of the
many problems that have risen is that with commercial software must be patched by the
software vendor, since they are the only ones with access to the code which eliminates the
problem from getting fixed any sooner than the vendor can publish a patch, and yet with open
source software a patch could be released in a drastically shorter amount of time because more
software developers would be able to work on it. The United States Government estimates that
fixing their most important computer will cost in excess of $6.8 billion and that 80% of them are
already Y2K compliant. However, this is only government agencies, and does not include
private sector businesses, organizations, agencies, and individual's computer systems. (Dunn,
"Doomsayers now say Y2K is OK").
Open source software is also exempt from virtually all of the software
protection laws that were
designed to protect commercial software, such as those that prohibit copying, modifying, or
redistributing. Software piracy, that is, making illegal copies of software than then using and/or
selling them for a profit is a felony. The problem is so great that one study estimated that over
64% of all software used by firms in Hong Kong were illegal (Bogert, "Windows 95, 5 Bucks").
With open source software, users may make as many copies as they with, sell it or give it away,
modify the source code, and so forth. This seems like a better alternative to software piracy
because it is completely legal.
This current trend in open source software is predicted only to grow,
and since Linux has now
become a viable alternative to Microsoft operating systems, more companies will be deploying
Linux itself, and many already have. The United States Post Office uses Linux, as does
RealNetworks (the company that founded RealPlayer, which is the Internet's leading streaming
technology audio and video player), as well as many others, especially Internet Service
Providers. Many individuals are also using Linux, and this 7-10 million user base had led to
many companies being founded and operated on selling and supporting this open source
software alone. From large companies such as Redhat Software or Caldera Systems putting out
Linux distributions or Linux VAR's (value added resellers) that sell pre-installed and pre-
configured Linux systems such as Wilson Consulting Services or Penguin Computing, many
businesses are cashing in on this trend. Same Ockman, owner of Penguin Computing (a
computer supplier that sells only x86 PC's with Redhat Linux installed) predicts that his
company will have over 100 employees by the end of 1999 . (Raghaven, "Personal Interview
with Sam Ockman). Who would have ever thought one could make money off of free software?
The basis of making money off this free software is not just selling support and training, but also
bundling the software with commercial software as a promotional tool. As such mainstream
companies as Dell, Gateway, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and others buy into Linux (which brings
about many other open source software packages) it looks as if the operating system is here to
stay- and something commercial software vendors such as Microsoft are going to have to deal
In fact, in the last week of October of 1998 a confidential memorandum
leaked from the
Microsoft Corporation which was dubbed 'The Halloween Documents' by the open source
community, that documented Microsoft's strategy against the open source software movement.
These documents created great controversy, and even brought up ethical issues because many
of the comments made were very aggressive and promoted a monopolistic attitude. Such
comments as "Linux's homebase is currently commodity network and server infrastructure. By
folding extended functionality into today's commodity services and create new protocols, we
raise the bar & change the rules of the game..." and "The effect of patents and copyright in
combating Linux remains to be investigated.." show a few of the many reasons that the United
States Department of Justice has been investigating the Microsoft Corporation for several
months and on several occasions. Microsoft has admitted that the documents are authentic, but
downplay the seriousness of them. These documents, along with annotations, at the following
For consumers, the open source software movement seems ideal. They get
the best product
possible for free. Software developers may modify the code in anyway, and can charge for it
but must also give away the code (see the GNU GPL). Companies can save hundreds, if not
thousands upon thousands of dollars using open source software. Also, this open source
software is promoting competition between software vendors and has already proved itself to
be a viable competitor to the Microsoft software giant. In such a short time, the Linux operating
system already supports significantly more hardware than Microsoft's Windows NT. But there
is also another side to this, one that must not be forgotten in this latest trend.
The computer industry is the fastest growing occupational industry,
right above the health care
industry. Many of these positions are computer programmers and software developers, but
many believe that open source software is going to eliminate many of these jobs because
everyone will be using open source software instead of commercial software. Many believe that
thus far, the open source software development has been in perfect contrast to commercial
software development because all most all open source software has been done on the UNIX
platform such as Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, GNU Herd, etc., while commercial software
development was aimed at the mainstream Microsoft Windows and Macintosh platforms. With
Apple going open source with it's latest MAC server release (Nathan, "Apple"), this is changing.
Microsoft spokespeople also claim that even though many people may be
downloading Linux or
purchasing CD's, they may just be trying it out to see what it is like and still using Microsoft
products. (Seltzer, "Software Returns To Its Source"). In opposition to that, others claim that
even though many have purchases Microsoft software, they may have since installed Linux (or
another open source operating system) and have abandoned Microsoft products.
New students to the computer and information technology field may be
less likely to go on to
become a programmer if they believe they will not be able to make a good standard of living at
it and are expected to give away their software.
Software liability, though not a major issue most times, is non-existent
in open source software.
In other terms, that means no one but whoever uses the software is responsible for any negative
effects of the software. If for some reason it crashes the machine and causes millions of dollars
in loss of data, the software developer or distributor is not liable. Open source software is on an
as-is basis. This could be due to the fact that since the source code used to make the program is
freely available as well, and anyone can modify it and redistribute it, it would be easy to get
tainted code. On the flipside of that however, is that since the code is freely available, anyone
with knowledge of programming can also inspect it to make sure that the code is not tainted.
With commercial software, the software could be tainted as well (have a virus or Trojan horse
in it) but the code would not be able to be inspected before being compiled to run as a
In numbers, it seems as though the benefits of open source software
outweigh the negative
effects. But when it comes down to it, we must think of this as an ill structure problem. The
software business is an industry that has a lot of cash flow in it, and is what made CEO of
Microsoft Bill Gates the richest man in the world but that industry is now being threatened by a
new trend, one that seems only to be growing and gaining momentum. When technological
innovation, economic tension, and a free vs. restricted environment come together chaos is
much more likely to occur. Perhaps there is no one correct answer to solving the dilemmas of
this new trend in computing but it is certainly something that must be monitored for historical,
technological, and economic purposes and could lead to a utopian array of various software
development licenses on multiple operating systems. Until then, "may the source be with you".