BISSEX: Open Source-a-Me

Last week, a group of elite programmers met in Palo Alto, California to discuss something central to their work as creators of software: giving it away.Taken together, the works of the "Freeware Summit" attendees are quite literally running the Internet. These works include: one of the world's most popular web servers (not a single site, but a package that is powering thousands of different sites); the program responsible for handling most of the world's e-mail; the software that lets us use names instead of numbers for Net addresses; a scripting language so ubiquitous it's called "the duct tape of the Internet."Free software on the Net isn't limited to behind-the-scenes applications. Web browsers are a huge category of free software, for example. Microsoft Internet Explorer has always been available at no charge, and in January Netscape gave up on its attempts to get people to pay for their product.The practice of giving away a product that is in high demand seems to go against most rules of economics, business, and common sense. After all, you can make more money selling something to ten thousand people than you can make by giving it away to ten million. Right?That depends. In the software business, some special conditions prevail. First, while the cost of creating a new program can be very high, the cost of making additional copies of that program and distributing them is relatively low -- in fact, it drops nearly to zero if the delivery medium is the Net. Second, many people are willing to pay as much for support as they are for the product itself. Third, software programs don't act alone. They interconnect. Controlling one segment of the software market -- even if you have to give away your product to do it -- can give you leverage to control others.It's this third reason which is really behind the pricing of web browsers. Indeed, Microsoft's ongoing giveaway of its browser has been called "predatory" and is one of the factors in the ongoing antitrust proceedings.A desire for monopolistic control is not in the heart of the free software movement. There's a fourth reason to be added to that list: simply put, its advocates say, free software is better.The alternative terms "freely redistributable software" and "open source" software get closer to explaining this belief. Normally, "source code," thousands of lines of human-readable computer instructions that describe the program, is a closely guarded secret that never passes the company walls. Many commercial software licenses even contain clauses forbidding attempts to reverse-engineer the source code from the finished product."Copyleft" is one name for the licensing arrangement covering open source software. The term was coined by free software pioneer Richard Stallman: "Typically, copyrights take away freedoms; copyleft preserves them. It is a legal instrument that requires those who pass on a program to include the rights use, modify, and redistribute the code; the code and the freedoms become legally inseparable."Among other things, this allows for a sort of peer review, where programmers can examine a newly released version of an important program not just based on how it seems to work, but on how it is built. This is one reason that open source evangelists believe their products are so well suited to running networks. Networks are wonderfully convenient, but the more users you bring together, the greater a security risk you run. By using software that you know has been pored over by objective, independent parties, you reduce the chance of nasty surprises. If the integrity of your entire network depends on source code that nobody except a single manufacturer's employees have ever seen ... Open source advocates don't claim that nobody should be able to make money from software, but that the dominant shrink-wrap model is not always the best. Since software costs nearly nothing to copy and give away, why not do that? Why not make money customizing, troubleshooting, and training? Why charge people for manuals and fancy packaging if they don't want it? Businesses like Cygnus Support in California are devoted to open source software support full-time.With Netscape and Microsoft fighting a battle over internet standards by seeing who can give away more free browsers, it would seem that the free software ideal has been co-opted. Microsoft certainly isn't giving anybody any of its source code. Then again, why did Netscape and Microsoft start giving away their browsers? Because they couldn't sell them. Why couldn't they sell them? Because people expected web browsers to be free. Why? Because the first web browsers were free, most developed using government or university funds and the open source model.The precedent was set long ago. Microsoft and Netscape are just getting back to it -- back to the source.***Sites in my SightsTo learn more about the newly formed Open Source coalition, visit their web site (www.opensource.org). The Free Software Foundation (www.fsf.org) is worth a look too. For regular old free software (that may or may not come with source code, as if you care) visit CNet's shareware and freeware archive (www.shareware.com).Do you use free software? Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).

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