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"At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression of the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.
With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed."
quoted from Karl Marx Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of a Political Economy.
Software Development Revolutionized: The Case for Open Source Software Development
Computers have become increasingly important in today’s world, and the Internet has drastically changed how we interact with others. There are computers in our homes, schools, and doctor’s offices. Many of those are connected to the Internet. Computers need software in order to run. At the heart of every computer is its operating system (OS), or the software that communicates to the hardware in the computer. Many of us are familiar with Microsoft’s operating system, Windows. People are just starting to hear about Linux, a Unix-based operating system pioneered by Linux Torvolds in 1991(The Cathedral… p. 23).
At issue here are not the operating systems themselves, but rather the methods behind their development. The Windows operating system is proprietary software, or software in which the source code is closed to development, modification or replication by others. What is also important is how the software itself is developed. Proprietary software is developed by a relatively small group of engineers over a long period of time. Eric Raymond, author of a compilation of essays entitled The Cathedral and the Bazaar, talks about the different methods of development. About closed-source software development, he says this. "I believed that the most important software (operating systems and really large tools like the Emacs programming editor) needed to be build like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time" (The Cathedral… p. 23).
The antithesis to the "Cathedral" style of development is Open Source Software (OSS) development, or the "Bazaar" style of development. Open source software is worked on voluntarily by programmers, or hackers as they like to be called, all over the world. The source code to the software is open to all others to modify, derive new works, or adapt to their systems (The Open Source Definition). Informal groups work on parts of larger projects and all of the "leaders" take submissions from the general population for fixes and suggestions for their programs. Groups are structured loosely and informally, but certain mores are carefully followed within the culture, such as program ownership and the like. This dynamic grouping of individuals results in better programs in that they are more stable and reliable than most of the traditionally developed software. "Linus Torvolds’s style of development – release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity – came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral building here rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of different agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, which would take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge by a succession of miracles." (The Cathedral… p. 30) The reason not many people have even heard of the Linux operating system is because it is touted by software engineers, or hackers, not by fancy corporate marketing. Eventually, however, the people at Microsoft had to take notice of this development phenomenon. An internal memorandum, leaked by an unidentified Microsoft employee in 1998, was annotated and published by Eric Raymond on the Internet on Halloween and aptly named "The Halloween Documents." Microsoft engineer, and author of the leaked memo, Vinod Vallopilli had this to say about open source software. "Open Source Software (OSS) is a development process which promotes rapid creation and deployment of incremental features and bug fixes in an existing code/knowledge base. In recent years, corresponding to the growth of the Internet, OSS projects have acquired the depth and complexity traditionally associated with commercial projects such as Operating systems and mission critical servers" (Halloween Documents). For all concerned, from end-users to IT professionals and software developers, the open source method of software development has more to offer than the closeted, monopolistic methods companies like Microsoft use.
So why is Linux running a distant second to Microsoft Windows? There are several reasons why this is so. Linux is not as accessible to novice and beginner computer users as Windows (Halloween Documents). Linux is written by hackers, for hackers. In other words, Linux is written for the most expert users. This is not to say that it is inaccessible for the general population. Beginning programmers and advanced users find this OS quite accessible (Halloween Documents). There are quite a few differences in how Linux works that Unix professionals are used to, but Windows operators have never seen before. Most notably, the Linux operating system does not tie a graphical user interface (GUI, pronounced "gooey"). The GUI is a separate program. For example, Gnome and KDE are GUIs and are distributed to run on Linux and are developed with open-source licensing.
Microsoft inextricably ties its GUI to the operating system. This makes for some big code, a less stable product, and a greater possibility for bugs, or errors in programming. When the engine for the operating system specializes in being an operating system and the engine for the GUI specializes in the GUI, what you have is a product with less code that is sleeker and more efficient than anything that Microsoft traditionally puts out (Halloween Documents).
Another reason why Linux is in second place to Microsoft, and another barrier to entry in the operating system market is that common programs are only available for the Windows platform. And Linux will stay in second place until this stops (Grimaldi, Jones Yang). Microsoft Word and Excel are not available for Linux, nor do they have any reason to make it available to Linux. What Bill Gates calls establishing standards to perpetuate a positive feedback cycle (Gates), others including the Department of Justice call it locking in the consumer. Once Microsoft locked the customer into the OS, they were then able to bundle the operating system with new computers by giving manufacturers incentives to put their operating system on their computers. Once this happened and Windows was on over 90% of all desktop computers (Jones Yang), Microsoft wrote application suites such as Office and Works. They literally squeezed the competition off of the hard drive (Cutting edge, p. 94). Corel and Lotus are now making their office suites available for the Linux operating system. Netscape has gone a step beyond and made it’s source code available. They have begun to realize that Microsoft’s stranglehold on the industry will not be broken any other way.
Many people are adopting the OSS development model in their business approach. There are many reasons why this would benefit a business, including increased value in the company and its product, less overhead, more scrutiny of code, higher security in the future of the software, and a way of beating a monopoly (The Business Case…, Everitt, The Cathedral). But the most important and most fundamental reason a company will release its source code or use open source software on its in-house machines will always be because of the increase in reliability that OSS offers. (The Business Case…).
By nature of the open-source development method, the talent utilized consists of the best programmers in the world. Proprietary software development methods, unless they open up their source code to modifications, will never be able to deploy such a large pool of talent (Halloween Documents). OSS development occurs with some of the best programming minds in the world who hack on their own time and can get the results of their talents out to users quickly. When the Linux kernel was under development, it sometimes was revised and updated for users to download once a day (The Cathedral…, p. 23). The kernel does not update this often anymore, in fact there are now two kernels posted. An earlier stable version of the kernel is posted for users, and the development kernel is posted for those who want to test new features on their machines.
The Linux kernel is reliable to a degree that Microsoft can only dream of. This is a direct result of the talent that open-source software developers are able to utilize. Linux is written for its most able users. Windows writes its software for its least able users. By "dumbing-down" their software in this way, it dumbs down the user as well.
Proprietary software vendors are not motivated to innovate. They are motivated to sell as many copies of their software as they can. That is how they make their money. "Microsoft has announced upcoming better features on its own software – improvements which often would not materialize for months, even years after their ‘scheduled’ release. The result of such ‘vaporware’ announcements was to freeze software purchases in the market until Microsoft had time to marshal its financial and technical resources to overwhelm its opponents." (Newman) Even in the face of competition from open source software vendors, Microsoft has not looked to their programmers for answers. They look to their marketing department. This is an interesting approach considering open source software projects have met and exceeded commercial quality, not only in reliability, but also with the products’ "look and feel." (Halloween Documents) Microsoft does not make money by fixing bugs.
Open source software has made an astounding case for itself, not just recently, but in the last 30 years. They are solving problems with usability for a wider range of users as we speak, but open source’s first priority has been, and always will be to create the most reliable software they can. The other thing the markets are beginning to realize is that there is money to be made with open source software development. If a company cannot make money it is likely that the company will at least save on overhead costs. And as for Microsoft’s argument that by allowing more competition innovation will be stifled, that has not been the case and there is empirical evidence to that effect (Cutting Edge). Finally, Thomas Jefferson once talked about knowledge as a proprietary entity: "There is a social creation process for all products. Yet there are important differences between the knowledge value-added and the physical value-added. For example, pure knowledge goods such as software and databases can be possessed and enjoyed jointly by as many as make use of them. This is a fascinating capitalist creation because, as Thomas Jefferson argued, knowledge is not susceptible to exclusive property. More over, knowledge transmission is incomparably less expensive than its creation. In effect, the consumption of knowledge is easily collectivized but difficult to privatize." (Cutting Edge) Along with the growth of open source software and the growth predicted for the near future, it is certain that innovation will continue at a pace previously unheard.
Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution. New York: Verso 1997.
Everitt, Paul. "How We Reached the Open Source Business Decision." Last modified September 15, 1999. Accessed April 20, 2000.http://www.zope.org/Members/paul/BusinessDecision
Forester, Tom and Morrison, Perry. Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing. Cambridge: The MIT Press 1990.
Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking 1995.
Grimaldi, James V. "U.S. plan would break up Microsoft." April 24, 2000. Accessed April 24, 2000.http://www.msnbc.com/news/398826/asp?0a=221I120
Jones Yang, Dory. "Are Baby Bills in our future?" U.S. News & World Report. May 8, 2000.
Newman, Nathan. "From Microsoft Word to Microsoft World: How Microsoft is Building a Global Monopoly." 1997. Accessed March 2000. Link no longer works.http://www.igc.org/trac/feature/microsoft/monopoly/msword2world.htm
Perens, Bruce. "The Open Source Definition." Version 1.7 February 2000.http://www.opensource.org/osd/.
Raymond, Eric S. The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Sebastepol: O’Reilly 1999.
Raymond, Eric S. "The Halloween Documents: Where will Microsoft try to drag you today? Do you really want to go there?" October 1998. February 2000.http://www.opensource.org/halloween/.
"The Business Case for Open Source." No date or version given. Accessed March 2000.http://www.opensource.org/for-suits.html.