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Open Source Software

Author: Rich Christie <RichChristie@ChristieComputer.com>

Date: May 1999

"Open source promotes software reliability and quality by supporting independent peer 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 developed by 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 community.

Linux was to be an open source UNIX based operating system with POSIX compliance written 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 operating systems. 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, "Software").

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. (Seltzer, "Software").

Yet another widely used open source product is the Emacs text editor.  Many DOS/Windows 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 209.150.251.66 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 market share.

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 dramatically affected 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 with. 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 website: http://www.opensource.org/halloween.html

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 program. 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".


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