But looking at just the best-known packages misses the point. When you scrape
the surface, open-source software is everywhere. Virtually every vendor's
TCP/IP stack (including Microsoft's) is based on one originally developed as
part of the Berkeley UNIX networking package. The Internet infrastructure and
its standards process are prime exemplars of the open-source movement. And
at the current cutting edge, most of the commercial XML packages build on the
open-source xml parser written by James Clark, an independent programmer
living in Thailand who also wrote many of the GNU text-processing tools.
Building the next generation of infoware products
Everyone asks if Linux really has a chance to dethrone Windows. But that's the
wrong question. Open source has already radically changed the rules of the
computing game, with ripple effects that are tugging the center of gravity away
To make this clear, let's start with a small story.
I was talking with some friends recently, friends who don't own a computer. They
were thinking of getting one so they could use Amazon to buy books and CDs.
Not to use "the Internet," not to use "the Web," but to use Amazon.
Now, that's the classic definition of a "killer application:" an application
makes someone go out and buy a new computer.
What's interesting is that the killer application is no longer a desktop
application or even a back-office enterprise software system, but an entirely
breed, something you might call an "information application," or perhaps even
As the rules change
Indeed, the old players are often key enablers of their own demise, as they try
get into the new market but can't fully embrace the new rules. Microsoft's
ascendancy over IBM as the ruling power of the computer industry is a classic
example of how this happens. IBM gave away the market to Microsoft because it
didn't see that the shift of power was not only from the glass house to the
desktop, but also from proprietary to commodity hardware and from hardware to
In the same way, despite its attempts to get into various information
Microsoft still doesn't seem to realize that software, as Microsoft has known
no longer the main driver of value creation in the computer business.
Change the (rules of the) game
Just as it was last time around, the key to the next stage of the computer
industry is the commoditization of the previous stage. As Bob Young of Red Hat,
the leading Linux distributor, has noted, his goal is not to dethrone Microsoft
the top of the operating systems heap, but rather, to shrink the dollar value of
the operating systems market.
The real challenge for open-source software is not whether it will replace
Microsoft in dominating the desktop, but rather, whether it can craft a business
model that will help it to become the "Intel Inside" of the next generation of
Open source as scientific method
Computer science, too, must exist in an uneasy alliance with industry. Where
once new work came primarily from academic computer scientists, now the
computer industry drives new work forward. While the rank and file of
open-source programmers are still the many computer science undergrads and
graduate students around the world, more and more open-source programmers
are working in industry rather than academic settings, and more and more
companies are basing their business around the open-source model.
Computer science, though, differs fundamentally from all other sciences.
Computer science has only one means of enabling peers to replicate results:
share the source code. To demonstrate the validity of a program to someone,
you must provide them the means to compile and run the program. The
open-source development model, then, really is an extension of the scientific