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
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
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
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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