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Alternative Culture Articles

August 13, 2000

Open Source
A million heads are better than two!
by Royce Carlson

The Internet has spawned a new way of creating software that has the potential to produce vastly better products and services than the conventional business model and has many businesses running scared. In the software industry it is called Open Source.

The usual way of software development, called closed development, consists of a team of developers working together in seclusion and secrecy to produce software for the market. This process is slow and limited to the skills of the software engineers involved. No one outside the company can add to it or modify it in any way. The source code is unavailable to outsiders.

With Open Source, software is created by a worldwide community of programmers. When source code becomes available to all, it begins to evolve as people modify it, add new features and improve existing features. This process results in better software due to a broad-based collaborative effort. The software development process can also go much faster than the conventional closed source method.

The most famous Open Source software these days is Linux, a collaboratively created operating system based on UNIX. Linus Torvalds started the Linux project and leads the development but the source code belongs to everyone. It is the only non-Microsoft operating system that is gaining market share. Currently it is still difficult to use for the average PC owner but its reliability is becoming legendary. If you have a PC, you probably get some kind of crash in the Windows system a few times a week. Experienced computer users have become used to this and see it as normal. The Linux operating system can sometimes go for years between crashes!

Since no individual or corporation owns open source software, how does anyone make money from it? Open Source is a kind of barter economy where the medium of exchange is software. A developer adds a feature of his/her own and receives the benefit of all the other developersí expertise by having a superior software product. In addition to this, a software engineer who has contributed a useful feature or improvement to a product may be sought out by companies willing to pay good money for the engineerís skills. The companies that are making money from open source are doing it by providing support to users and providing the software with instructions. Red Hat Software, one of the better-known Linux businesses sells Linux but doesnít really sell software. They sell service and instruction.

The open source idea has other applications that are emerging in areas besides the software industry. There is at least one site for open source development of computer hardware and there is a growth of collaborative development in various fields of the arts.

The Soundproof Mouth Project is an interactive film serial where you, the viewer, get to decide what happens next. After reviewing suggestions, the next episode is created using the input from visitors to the site. In literature, there are fiction sites where visitors can add to an online story thus producing a collaborative work. The Interactive Science Fiction Website is an example of this.

I have heard that Todd Rundgren has an "open source" music project going where he starts a piece of music and other musicians can add to and modify it to produce a community-created work. There are a few web sites, like Communimage, that allow user input to create online collaborative works of visual art.

S.E.T.I. At Home is a project where the work of analyzing data to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence is divided among over a million volunteers who have contributed unused computing power to do a job that even a super-computer would be slow at. A program is downloaded into an individualís PC, which uses the computerís under-utilized computing capacity to analyze a small portion of the data downloaded from radio telescopes. This is not actually the same as Open Source, but it is another great example of the Internet enabling collaboration to produce superior results.

The term Open Source was coined only two years ago and the concept is still in its infancy in all but the software fields. During the next several years we will see new applications of the idea of collaborative creation that will enhance our lives. If two heads are better than one, a million heads must be that much better. The Internet provides a medium for those heads to act as one and produce wonders yet to come.


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Royce Carlson