NOTE: Following the dictum of open source software: 'release early, release often,' I'm placing this here to solicit comments, refutations and to hopefully generate debate on the topics discussed. This, like source code, will be an evolving document, in part through your feedback. If emailing me, please signify if you wish to be acknowledged herein, for your contributions.
"If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." --Isaac Newton 
Why is it important to consider whether platforms built with the open source method will become the new industry staple? In essence, by showing this is a likely inevitability, this will help it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know this method to be a powerful and effective technique, as first IBM then Microsoft have used to it great effect over the past three decades. Since the late 80's, this tool for market penetration has been wielded, to give Microsoft dominance in an increasing number of industry sectors. In short, the reasoning goes: Why compete, when Microsoft will always win? Commercial software vendors, IT consultants, resellers, and developers, all consider the same issues in response. Developers think: If I write software, it may as well be for only Microsoft platforms. They always win. If I write for the MacOS, BeOS or OS/2, I'll have a fraction of the market. IT consultants think: If I learn another platform, and interface, I'll lose out. The world is going down the Microsoft-everywhere path. ISV's think: Microsoft has conquered all 100, 50, 10 and 1 million unit application domains, and is expanding downwards into my product space. I don't have a chance competing. I'll keep winding my way down to smaller and smaller niche domains. All these quite understandable trains-of-thought arise because people percieve that Microsoft, with its technology flight-plan, is unassailable. This may have been the case with all commercial competitors in the past, but now there is a new player in the game. Not a technology or vendor as such, but a process and mode of thought; open source.
What makes open source such a strong contender for the new titleholder of the software development paradigm, is its openness and peer review process. Why is this so important? What makes this such a powerful approach? The best response I can think of is to draw an analogy with another area of human endeavour, Science.
Openness is thus one area of the scientific process which is of interest for comparison with open source development. While sizeable tomes have been written about the methodology and philosophy of this facet of science , things generally boil down to the following: part of science is a process of verifying or culling hypothesis, and is in essence an open and self correcting system. Because of this, progress occurs at a much faster rate and in a more dependable/trusted fashion. This doesn't mean that the self correction happens in minute, continuously flowing 'chunks'. In reality, corrections arise as mini-revolutions, characterised by philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn , as paradigm shifts. Nonetheless, over longer periods of time, progress does occur. In many ways, this progress is accidental, as there is often no 'vision' or nomenclature to describe where science is heading, until after it has arrived.
The speed of progress is greatly enhanced by virtue of the fact the practitioners of science publish not only results, but methodology, and techniques. In open source terms, this is equivalent to the source code. This not only helps 'bootstrap' others into the field, to learn from the example set, but makes it possible for others to verify or refute the results (or techniques) under investigation. In an almost guided Darwinian evolutionary fashion , this makes the scientific process a powerful tool for the highlighting, analysis and possible culling of ideas and concepts; less useful ideas and hypothesis die, and likely contenders come sharply into focus. Newton made his famous comment, in part, to indicate that his contributions to the human knowledge could not have been achieved solely. He needed the 'firmament' beneath him hypothesised, tested and confirmed by generations of scientists, philosophers and thinkers before him, over thousands of years. With science, in the medium to long run, all other issues fall by the wayside, and merit alone is the main attribute of the victorious memes. 
By comparison, multiple generations of closed source software can be seen as an unfortunate process of re-inventing the wheel. As can be imagined, this can be an excruciatingly slow process . The open communication of source and ideas, while progressing slowly at first, builds momentum as more and more practitioners learn from, extend or revive from obscurity, more and more code. The success of this form of interconnected web of knowledge has been analysed by the historian of technology, James Burke .
Another facet of similarity between open source and science, is the respective cultures. Both are strongly technical, perhaps verging on the geeky; both are meritocracies. A large part of the impetus of the scientists is the applause of others. Peer recognition is also perhaps the single most important  reason attributed by open source advocates and developers as to the reason why they pursue open source methods of software distribution.
Why is the current period the 'coming of age' of the open source paradigm? Why, if this idea is so good, if indeed it will become the pre-eminent development process, didn't it arise 20 years ago? What follows is some analysis which hopefully shows that while the open source idea has resonance with many people, lack of facilities curtailed its progress, much like the spread of ideas and technology from the ancient Greeks was witheld from most ordinary people prior to the Gutenberg press. with these facilities now in place, the full power of the paradigm is quickly becoming apparent, and it is already bearing fruit.
The current growth in open source usage and recognition could not have happened 20 years ago. There are probably a number of synergistically contributing factors for this, including the advent and widespread use of the Internet, maturation of quality development tools (mostly of open source origin once again) and the slow and steady spread of the open source meme.
One of the pre-requisites for the current progress of open source systems, is the quantity and quality of development tools on offer. Back when Richard Stallman, perceived by most as the instigator of the modern freeware movement, began writing the GCC compiler, there was a relative scarcity of quality development tools. There were also few well accepted and standardised programming languages which could be used for the rapid development of systems and applications. Many of the emerging languages and methodologies of the 1970's (C, Pascal, Smalltalk), were still relatively immature in both design and implementation. By comparison, now we have a multitude of powerful, well conceived development tool modes (C, C++) and scripting platforms (Perl, tcl, Python.)
Another reason why the open source revolution is occurring now, is due to the Internet. The Internet makes possible numerous processes which have been essential for the growth of the open source movement. Among the major advantages, the Internet makes for a wonderful accelerant of code and idea dissemination. This includes spreading the idea that open source is good. To some extent, this idea is subversive of the current closed and proprietary paradigm, and it's a message that traditional IT magazines wouldn't have pushed too far, for fear of potential revenue losses. While commercialisers of open source products are also advertisers, they are not in the same spending league as the major commercial vendors such as Microsoft and Lotus. With the effective self publishing available on the Internet for everyone (witness Slashdot , Linux Weekly News  etc) the mainstream IT trade press have no option but to follow suit, even if it does mean revenue reductions. Those that do so and succeed (LinuxWorld ) may have lower revenue than their more commercially focussed competitors (ZDnet) but they greatly enhance their reputation amongst the industry's technological elite (geeks, hackers, IT technologists) and thus have higher overall influence. It is more often than not, these individuals who slowly rise to the upper echelons of our industry's leading firms, and most interesting startups.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the current crescendo of open source growth is the use of the Internet as the medium through which the mechanics of distributed software development and testing is made feasible. Prior to widespread developer use of the Internet, bulletin-board services (BBS) were the main vehicle for idea and code dissemination of the techno-masses. Modern software construction techniques, involving the use of Network File System (NFS), Concurrent Versioning System (CVS) and GNU's tools, have made the Internet far more appropriate for this task.
Yet another reason for the current surge in open source acknowledgment, is improvements in hardware. One of the oft repeated observations of the information technology industry is the rapid improvement in computer hardware performance. This is another major reason as to why the past few years have seen an increase in usage of powerful, UNIX-like operating systems. The 32- and 64-bit CPUs, high performance large disk space, and the memory needed to run a modern UNIX, or UNIX clone, weren't available to the types of people who have fuelled the open source movement until recent years. Ironically, the mainstream OS (Windows) has provided what in effect, may be the vehicle for it's own eventual demise, through its bloatedness and therefore escalating hardware needs. Merely to tread water, hardware systems have simultaneously advanced and dropped in price, benefiting the first few waves of open source users and developers, such as hackers (not crackers!), students, IT professionals, and industry technology-innovators.
How do we define 'dominance' in the information technology industry? We need some gnomic measurement of what technology or process is dominant now and how it got to achieve this status, and by what means the open source model will overtake it. There are numerous case histories that may assist in our analysis. For this excercise to be illuminating, we must focus on specifics and details. My hope is to show both how closed source systems have been able to capture various IT markets, and why these techniques will not succeed in keeping the open source paradigm at bay. While the text that follows refers to proprietary vendors when invoking specific market dominancecases, we must keep in mind that the intention is to show that the closed source model is at problem, and not specific for-profit organisations.
Our first example, is the way in which Microsoft's Windows holds the dominant position for the desktop. Windows was never the best technical solution. It wasn't the easiest operating system to use. Why did it come to control 90% of the desktop and low end server market? To determine why, we need to contrast the competitors. Windows beat Apple's MacOS because the MacOS didn't run on cheap, commodity hardware. An Apple Macintosh was and will always be 30-50% more that the cost of a comparable low end x86 clone. Apple will claim that Macs are no more expensive than Compaq, Dell or other top tier name-brand PCs. That's not the point. Having access to very low end, low cost systems is the point. These do not exist in the Apple Mac space. And as Independent Software Vendors (ISV) write primarily for the 'mainstream' operating system, this translated to more and more x86 based Windows apps. Furthermore, the main advantage the Macintosh had, was its wonderful simplicity in installation and operation. It is perhaps the best platform for many 'end-users'. This simplicity however, can begin to cause problems for 'power-users' and technophiles. An analogy can be made that the MacOS is like a bike with immovable training wheels, often frustrating more experienced users. This combination of not targeting the 'mass-market' through early OS licensing by Apple, and by being snubbed by the tech-innovators, left the MacOS forever in the shade. As Apple's overall market share slips, so do the number of ISVs coding for the platform, so do the platform's chances of survival.
IBM's OS/2, had, from its inception, a gloomy associated aura. It too was technically superior to Windows. It seemed to be the OS that people either loved, or ignored. Most ignored it, regardless of the tens of millions that IBM pumped into marketing. If only IBM didn't, at that time, still posses it's lingering, unpleasant, monopolist odour, it may have had more people warm to OS/2. Also, by virtue of being the underdog in a race with Microsoft, people felt ill at ease in buying into a technology that Big Blue might eventually abandon. This of course, has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with IBM pushing NT solutions now more than OS/2. OS/2's fate will not be the same of open source operating systems like Linux, due to the fact that users who 'buy into' the Linux platform know it will always be there; there's no bean counting manager in corporate entity in Linux's 'parent company' who'll be able to pull the plug, orphaning millions of users. By way of contrast to the slowly dimming fortunes of both OS/2 and the MacOS, Linux had more installs in 1997 than both of these two platforms combined. Impressive, considering the amount of marketing muscle that IBM and Apple can muster.
Once again, one of the reasons that Windows achieved dominance, is that it is the operating platform that most of the young up-and coming tech-leaders used 7-10 years ago. UNIX workstations were too expensive, and Microsoft was not as unpopular amongst their number now as it is today, IBM was held that dubious honour. These individuals, through learning on the Microsoft pastures were most likely to follow down the Windows path in their ensuing careers. Slowly, this group has migrated from Windows to Linux and other open source platforms and Microsoft is now loathed more than IBM was twenty years ago. As happened in the early Nineties, these tech-leaders are moving into the mainstream, bringing their hacker culture with them, and their insistence on more capable, powerful and open platforms. As for examples of this type of event, witness the growth of UNIX into the corporate enterprise space. Twenty years ago, suggesting UNIX to mainframe sites seemed a career-limiting move. Now, UNIX is the entrenched enterprise player, in part because the generation of 70's and 80's hackers eventually became the MIS heads, Similarly the explosive growth of the Internet shows another example of this process. Ten years ago, most corporates would have eschewed the Net as something of a toy for bearded hackers at universities to fool around on. Five years later, when everyone realised that this is perhaps the biggest improvement in mass communications since the printing press, everyone wanted in.
While much of the development of most open source projects is performed by a myriad of people, generally one or a small group of these are tasked with compiling the disparately generated code and bug patches, quality assurance and then checking it into the primary source code tree. More often than not, these people devote a non-trivial part of their time to his endeavour, sometimes enough for it to have a negative impact on their personal finances. To counter the problem of these individuals moving on from their open source projects due to time constraints, it is important that methods of ongoing financial return be looked at by the open source community. Some work has already been done by various groups to this effect. Also, many of the commercial 'distributors' of open source systems are actively funding core developers, ensuring the continued steady development of important pieces of technology for future open source platforms. Still, more consideration needs to be given to the issue of monetary recompense for the developers of many non-essential open source applications and tools. Some will indeed be able to charge for customised releases. Others through the provision of commercial grade support. Some can earn through the production and printing of manuals and media. Others may be lucky enough to join a company who bundles their open source with hardware or services, and thus sees an advantage in having them on-staff. Not everyone will fall into these groups, so more options are necessary. Some possibilities lie with variations to the main open source licences, such as the one used for the Ghostscript application by Alladin. Alternatively, peer review groups, which can develop along the lines of national science funding bodies, could be organised. This would assist in guaranteeing ongoing development of important open source applications. Funding for these bodies could come from an increasing number of commercial organisations who have witnessed and become convinced of the advantages that open source bestows upon them. Much like large corporations (mostly users of information technology, not necessarily IT firms themselves) helped fund the movement to open and interoperable systems in the early '80, these firms could be harnessed to fund open source in the new millennium. While in recent times, governments generally avoid 'meddling' in areas of commerce, a case could be made that fueling the development of open source platforms is in most governments 'national interests.' Stated advantages are multiple-source procurement, cost reduction and peer-review security analysis etc. If this idea can be heralded, argued and won, it may be possible to enlist the governments for minority funding, just as they do with science, research and development. This isn't a far-fetched concept. Government bolstering of open source software already happens indirectly through the government funded universities. Just as government funded scientific organisations worked with corporate 'commercialisers' of the R&D output, to help create the 'Computer Era', co-operation with peer-review and standards bodies can help propel whatever follows. While, in the end, the eventual outcome will be the same (open source dominance) this will help speed the process.
The issue of 'ego' in the software world has caused a large slice of the problems we have faced, in terms of closed protocols, wheel re-invention and the Not-Invented-Here (NIH) syndrome. The same issue has helped generate the problems which have kept UNIX's market share un-necessarily low. More recently, in the open source world, they have threatened to 'balkanise' Linux through disparate standards projects, and had the potential to create 'tribal' conflict between the various operating systems (Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD etc.) Luckily, it seems that we are starting to learn from the tactical and personality mistakes of our predecessors. People like Eric S. Raymond and Jordan K. Hubbard (a core FreeBSD developer) are articulate and passionate in their insistence of the open source community avoiding these un-necessary skirmishes. We, as a community, see before us, an opportunity to assist in the production of an open infrastructure for future global computing and communications; an infrastructure where the platforms are as robust as they can be, the protocols are open and clean and the applications can communicate with one-another through common document standards. The IETF and W3C are working hard towards this end, and the open source community should work with them in ensuring freely available implementations for all to use. For some interesting comments on the importance of open protocls, see this paper by Raph Levien . There is much more at risk now if we miss this chance, than ever before. This, perhaps more than anything else, will likely help keep the group moving forward, if not in lock-step unison, at least in the same direction.
Perhaps the biggest advantage that will eventuate for all vendors when open source software becomes the norm, is the rather philospical notion that no single vendor will have any pre-tournament advantage over them. Presently, this is not the case. Some vendors, in both hardware and software, have sometimes subtle, sometimes acutely obvious advantages over others. This arises by virtue of the advantaged vendors owning the intellectual property (and closed source code) upon which the disadvantaged vendors depend. Business forces sometimes call upon tactics which invoke these advantages from time to time, leaving an upleasant taste for many players. Migration to open source platforms would remove all these uneven playing fields, for both hardware and software vendors.
It is obvious to most technologists that for an technology to take off and become mainstream, there needs to be a rationalisation of the formats upon which the industry is splintered. When this happens, consumers are happy to buy that which everybody else buys, economies of scale are introduced into the equation, and everybody wins. Consumers purchase at lower costs, vendors sell higher volume. This is where another advantage of open source software can be invoked. It is reasonably obvious that a large part of the splintering in the information technology industry occurs due to the 'Not-Invented-Here' syndrome. One vendor (rightly) believes that if they use another vendor's systems software, or build to another vendor's Application Programming Interface (APIs) they are at a tactical business disadvantage. Of course, each vendor thinks this, and thus, they number of systems platforms and APIs keeps increasing, and more fragmentation occurs. By convincing a large portion of these vendors to start using a fully-fledged open source operating system, in lieu of their current proprietary or 'imported' operating system, we can remove the basis for the disquiet over tectical advantages. Perhaps all these vendors will be happier to use this one open source platform, as they know that their competitors will never have any advantages over them. Perhaps this platform, and its associated APIs can be the one uniting factor which ushers in an era of greater mainstream acceptance, mass production of systems and lower costs. Perhaps this one platform can be the equivalent of the VHS videotape, or the compact-disk. The vendors can then get on with increasing the functionality and performance of the systems and software, safe in the knowledge that their business will never be at the mercy of some competitors tactical maneouverings ever again. We would all therefore benefit. This topic is covered in greater detail below.
The immediate advantages to vendors in the home/SOHO sector are cost reduction for each unit shipped, and likely reduction in post-sales technical support. As the hardware costs associate with personal computers keep decreasing (at the time of writing, an entry level PC was around US$500,) the ratio of closed source, proprietary operating system software to hardware cost for each shipped unit is getting higher. It is now estimated to be around 25% of the cost of the unit. This is perhaps the single biggest component cost, and all PC vendors that address this market segment have no way to reduce this cost, if they stick with the current commercial operating system. By switching to an open source operating system like Linux, they would instantly remove this largest single cost, allowing them to either severly undercut their competitors, or make considerably higher margins. While some may argue that open source operating systems aren't ready for prime time home usage, this argument is fading very quickly, with projects like KDE , GNOME  and Wine. On the subject of reduced technical support, the general consensus amongst systems administrators  is that open source operating systems have considerably lower ongoing support and maintenance costs than the types of proprietary operating systems presently in use for home/SOHO personal computers. This would greatly reduce post-sales support and would put whichever vendor shipping systems with open source operating systems at a great advantage over rivals. Another less tangible advantage is that through using an open source operating system, there is immense scope for customisability. Opening screens, icons, backgrownds and screensavers can all be configured to help either sell the product, or for useful post sales marketing.
For vendors targetting the corporate sector in personal computers and small servers, the benefits are greater security and performance, substantial reduction in lost productivity due to system faults, and reduction of licence fees for server operating systems. The points raised have been dealt with throughout this paper; alse see . In this market segment, customisability is a substantial advantage over rivals who can only ship what their closed source operating system vendor dictates.
For vendors of high-level server systems and workstations, who often ship their own operating system rather than licence another software publisher's OS, the advantages are quite different. Instead of pursuing ongoing and very costly internal clsoed source operating system development, they should accept as a given the inevitable advantages and dominance of open source operating systems, and begin working with the open source community to introduce these operating systems to their hardware platforms and processor families. These vendors can then concentrate on adding value to this base operating system by building extensions for your specific plaftorm, without breaking compatibility.
Many industry observers believe that operating systems fall within the domain of 'natural monopoly,' where one platform slowly begins to dominate over others, edging them out of the market as more and more users flock to its 'mainstream.' A close comparison can be made for other industries where 'software' needs to be made to operate with 'hardware.' Video recorders and tapes, CD players and CDs, tape-decks and audio tapes are all clear examples. The 'playback' unit is the hardware and operating system while the music is the software. With this tendency towards natural monopoly, it is best for all vendors to converge upon an operating system platform (and infrastructure) that no single vendor can control. Industry- wide acceptance and use of open source software, in both its infrastructure guise and as technical tools, is perhaps our only chance of forever breaking the monopolist vendor vicious cycle. Extending our Tolkienesque analogy, open source methodologies and output, can then be thought of as Tom Bombadil , the character who was impervious to the Ring's seduction.
Consider the following possible scenario. An open source operating system (this could be any of NetBSD, FreeBSD, Linux etc. but for grammatical simplicity, lets choose Linux for example) could become the basis or template for all the major vendors to produce hardware for. Linux could then be available with a near complete set of features for a standard operaing system. If any operating system becomes standard, vendors have to find a way to differntiate their products from their competitors. While this is difficult to do with current closed source operating systems, it is almost trivial to do with open source OSs. For example, A major server manufacturer, could extend the base Linux OS with high-avaliabily features/drivers which are specific to their products. While the code may need to be re-released into the open source 'pool,' it will not be of great advantage to their vendor rivals, as they will most likely be using different hardware designs and architecures. Linux, with its wonderful chameleon-like capacity to be all-things to (nearly) all people, would make an excellent choice for the greatly dispirate needs of diffirent vendors and industry segments. From the looming thin-server market, to desktops, sub-notebooks, server (small to large) and super-computer clusters, there is much that it can offer. By comparison to all closed source platforms, Linux lends itself to great customisation, as has been shown by its hardware mobility. It is available on a dozen very different hardware platforms. Its closed source rivals can manage at most one or two. As computer technology extends into increasingly non-obvious areas (wearable computers, car-mounted systems, industrial devices, remote-sensing systems etc.) this flexibility of open source is not only an advantage, it becomes mandatory, else progress retardation will occur.
As more and more vendors come to adopt an open source platform upon which to build solitions for their customers, a number of factors which are of great benefit to potential clients will be bought to the fore, or emphasised more than they have. These include a greater effort by vendors on building faster or more robust hardware for enterprise solutions. This doesn't occur enough presently, because most vendors tout advantages of their respective OSs (such as which OS has the most applicationd applications.) With a standard open source platform that all vendors use, all vendors will have the same array of applications to offer (give or take a recompile for differing machine architecures.) This will force the emphasis on hardware and service quality. Also, even in cases where many vendors ship hardware with the same operating system, users are still miss out on specifically tailored (for example optimised) operating systems, or operating systems which run across more powerful processor families. This in turn, forces users to migrate from one platform (say Windows NT) to another, say (a multi-processor Solaris system) when they hit availability or scalability issues. Needless to say, migration of applications with custom built extensions would become a historical curiosity if Linux was used in both the low end enterprise arena (where NT solutions abound) and the high-end (where Solaris sits.)
Linux is also increasing in numbers, at what has been estimated as the fastest growth of any operating system. While exact numbers are indeed difficult to ascertain, most researchers have estimated around 8 to 10 million Linux installations (some of these may indeed have hundreds of users, as Linux is indeed a multi-user system.) This number is also said to be growing around 40% per year. What's more, these figures were compiled before Linux hit the big-time in terms of mainstream publicity and acknowledgment from the large software firms which now support it. It's only likely that Linux's growth will accelerate.
On the scripting side, it's obvious for most people that the main scripting systems, on any platform, are open source. These are Perl, which has hundreds of thousands of users, Python and TCL/Tk. GCC is perhaps the most popular cross-platform compiler family. It too is open source.
Unlike their server oriented and technical development tool cousins, open source desktop productivity applications have only recently started to make an appearance. If our model of slow initial take-up and limited functionality for open source projects is correct, it will be some time before truly competitive desktop apps arrive. This indeed doesn't have to be the case, as The Gimp  has shown. The Gimp may be an abnormality because there was a severe lack of a quality image processing tool for open source platforms prior to its arrival, by comparison to other applications, like word processors and spreadsheets, of which several excellent contenders exist (Wordperfect, Applixware, StarOffice.) With necessity being one of the driving forces of open source projects, there may be less of a need to produce a quality open source word-processor if one exists for a reasonable (or no) cost. Time will tell if some desktop apps fall outside the gravitational pull of open source superiority.
Another factor which is driving the greater acceptance of open source software is the distribution method. Even five years ago, most computer users would have known shrink-wrap software as the only form of legitimate software distribution and acquisition. Bulletin boards had an air of software piracy and the possibility of virus infection. The Internet has changed all this. Most users who are Net connected are very likely to download and try any number of freeware, demoware, shareware or commercial lite-versions of software on a regular basis. In fact, with higher bandwidths, more and more of PC user's software will come from this channel. There are many advantages. Software publishers can distribute from their web-site for minimal (or no) cost. Second and third level distributors and resellers aren't needed. Manuals are mostly on-line nowadays, and increasingly in platform independent HMTL or PDF file formats. Software, if commercial, can be purchased via secure credit card ordering systems. Into this newfound distribution channel, open source software can stride without looking in anyway 'odd' or 'left-of-centre'. Indeed, once past the initial operating system install (for Linux or FreeBSD) most other additional software packages one would need are only a few clicks of a web-browser away. The more fundamental this channel becomes, the more mainstream becomes the default open source delivery method. Indeed, when glossy brochures, retail store packages, shelf displays and sales staff trained to point to higher-earner software vanish, many marketing oriented companies then need to play on a level playing field on software quality and reputation. My guess is that they may be found lacking.
The web has further assisted the spread of open source software, through the rather egalitarian nature of web-info availability. Slashdot.org  can garner as many influential readers as the rather more well funded ZDNet. And unlike ZDNet which has a possible vested interest in pushing organisations like Microsoft (Microsoft are perhaps the world's biggest advertisers on the Internet, and thus a likely source of income to commercial company like Ziff-Davis whose online and printed revenue source is primarily advertising,) Slashdot is an example of an 'open source' web-site. Peer-recognition is one of the driving forces behind its founders' aims. Thus, Slashdot, Freshmeat , Linux Weekly News, LinuxToday  and LinuxNews  have garnered not only a cult following amongst the open source faithful, but grudging recognition and acknowledgment from their commercial competitors as places where interesting things occur (news breaks, story leaks from industry insiders etc.)
'If you look at security bulletins, Linux is impacted by security bugs as much as any other vendor. The thing is that, when you get the bulletin, Linux already has a patch for it, while the other vendors tend to say, "We are investigating." Microsoft is just horrible. They don't even care.' -- Linus Torvalds http://www.linuxworld.com/linuxworld/lw-1998-10/lw-10-torvalds.html
Viruses, while a common and an ever-present danger for the Windows and MacOS environments, are virtually non-existent for most open source platforms. Linux, and other UNIX-like operating systems, were designed from their inception to be used by multiple users, simultaneously. This forced theirdesigners to implement the types of security provisions which renders almost all virus-like attacks harmless. There have been no conclusive analyses done, on the costs organisations bear, in both preventing virus outbreaks, and mopping up after them on Mac and Windows platforms. Microsoft in particular, seems to have a knack in producing platforms which attract these undesirable programs. Initially there were many thousand DOS and Windows based virus executables. Then followed a plethora of MS-Office macro viruses, which were, in a sense, portable to MacOS based MS-Office systems. Later came Microsoft's concept of downloadable ActiveX controls. These, in particular, had considerable potential for damage, as was shown by the German crackers who demonstrated using ActiveX to insert bogus payment authorisation transactions into Windows based personal finance systems, and then let the personal finance manager upload these legitimately to their PC owner's bank. While ActiveX controls, were, in theory, supposed to be authenticated to particular developers, this didn't stop them from doing whatever they wanted, once downloaded to your Windows PC. Thankfully the Internet world completely ignored them. Once again, while open source platforms like Linux can never claim to be 100% virus free, they make the act of spreading viruses _much harder than most other platforms. Also, by virtue of the very rapid and open announcements and subsequent fixes to security holes, open source platforms will always be more secure in this area.
Another point which drives open source coders, and advocates of open systems in general, is the potential for the IT industry to slide back into the dim and ugly days of closed, proprietary systems, or, even worse, the potential to slide back into sole-vendor control of IT. For those who come from a technical background, this would be anathema to the current blossoming of interoperability, source code portability, and with vendors vying with one another on the quality of their implementation of open standards, not by pursuing the old quicksand technique of vendor-lock in. While this, in some ways, me produce results which aren't as slick, as marketable, or as fast to market, it always produces better long-term informational systems. Case in point, is the drive by certain web-browser makers encouraging web developers to create content for solely their web browser. This is in direct contrast to the wishes of the creator of World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who has stated: 'Anyone who slaps a "this page is best viewed with Browser X" label on a Web page appears to be yearning for the bad old days, before the Web, when you had very little chance of reading a document written on another computer, another word processor, or another network.' ) It should be fairly obvious that open source systems software (and highly important applications like web-browsers) are perhaps our best chance of enforcing open standards. As more and more people understand this, open source will be further strengthened.
Some of the questions I've been asked about these ideas can be paraphrased as: Why should it be important that software systems be open source as much as possible? We've managed for the past 40 years with mostly closed, proprietary code, why change? In short, (and at the risk of trumpeting our own importance,) because IT is now amongst the most important industries on Earth. It is firmly entrenched in all Western countries, and becoming so in most others. Almost everything you touch, watch, hear, read or commute in, is produced or controlled through some computer related process. This is becoming more-so each day. While we, as IT professionals, may have few qualms about endorsing games, maybe some utilities, perhaps even some business applications, in which we know bugs exist, or that we feel aren't very robust, how would we feel about the flaky software in medical equipment, airline control towers or car airbag control systems? As IT permeates more and more of our lives, we must have the confidence to know that either a) systems are incredibly robust, or b) we have access to the source, so we can verify the degree of robustness claimed by the system's authors. If you've written much code, you will know that 'a)' is perhaps an impossibility. For a system to be that robust, it must be in existence for some considerable amount of time, to prove itself. In the computer industry, this lapse of time would introduce new development tools and techniques, new hardware, new developers, new operating systems, any one of which could perhaps destabilise the incredible robustness of our claimant. Added to this, is the potential for the closed source developer of 'a)' to cease to exist, leaving no source code. Option 'b)' however, rings of surefooted pragmatism. It may not claim to be bulletproof yet, but it will likely achieve this status faster than 'a)' invoking the open source development and code feedback loop cited elsewhere in this paper. Chances are, that option 'b)' will also have been written to industry standard open APIs, with portability of platform and operating system in mind, and with open source tools which can be maintained to the levels desired by the developers of 'b)', thus preventing degradation of code fidelity through changes to development tools outside their control. Added to this is the fact that there is no concern if the originators of the code in 'b)' cease to exist, since we have the full source to continue on out path regardless. All this, should make a compelling case, pro- open source software as perhaps our most likely (but not perfect) hope for achieving quality, reliable software for all of us in the future.
In recent months, it has become clear that the biggest threat to the open source movement, Microsoft, has begun targeting the movement. Some analysts from the traditional IT publications are henceforth proclaiming that Linux's (and thus open source's) days are numbered. They are correct in saying that the Microsoft marketing machine is the best in the industry (if it wasn't, Microsoft would be nowhere.) They are also correct in their prediction (fast becoming true, as witnessed in the recent comments by the head of Microsoft France) that that same marketing machine is about to ignite a major campaign of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) against Linux and open source. What this will achieve, may in fact, be the opposite of what the pundits and Microsoft believe. Unlike their campaigns against Java, or OS/2, or indirectly against the MacOS, targeting Linux with bad-publicity will only cause the gaze of the computer using public, blissfully unaware that an alternative to Windows actually exists, to turn to Linux. While IBM (OS/2), the Mac (Apple) and Sun (Java) have very deep pockets of their own with which to shower their products with publicity, Linux has almost none. While some distribution vendors (Caldera, Red Hat, SuSe, PHT) do their best, they mainly cover that thin spread of IT journals, websites and magazines whose readers are probably Linux aware, and increasingly Linux users. With Microsoft's help, we are now in a position to read about Linux in our daily newspapers, possible TV commercials, and business journals, on an ever increasing basis. If you must spread FUD, you have to name your target. This will help elevate the word (and possibly a caricature of the open source philosophy) to a level higher than would otherwise be achievable. Why wont this work? Even if suddenly 100 million people who use PCs understand that there is a competitor to Windows, why would they consider Linux? Simple. Unlike most of the past targets of Microsoft's FUD, Linux is free. This means that the people who suddenly realise that there is an alternative, can try it full, legally, in greater numbers. Further, any extended stream of mud-slinging by Microsoft may backfire, in the same way that negative political advertising often backfires, Linux is not owned by anyone. It has an almost saintly image. Microsoft hurling mud at the 'John Lennon' of operating systems would probably cause minor revulsion amongst the computer using community. In short, Any publicity for Linux is good publicity; Linux (and open source) wins in the end.
Yet another bolstering force, primarily to Linux, but also for open source in general, is the 'Domino' effect of software vendors. By way of description, many ISVs have felt for quite a while that one vendor, Microsoft, has too much power and is constantly increasing its slice of the market, at the expense of their earnings. Furthermore, it does this in a manner which the United States Department of Justice (and 20 other States) agree is illegal. Thus, there is a pent-up wall of frustration from many of these ISVs, as they feel unable to compete on a fair playing field on any Microsoft platform. If a viable alternative platform does appear (and it has with Linux) many of these vendors will migrate their apps and systems. At first, it will be (and has been) a slow trickle. Then, the dam-walls will burst, and the Linux market with flood with hundreds of commercial apps that weren't there before. This is the point in which are at now. Already, there are moves in place by Corel to fast-track their desktop application ports to Linux, by helping finish and then using WineLib . With a fully functioning WINE (a system for running Windows applications in Linux and other platforms ) in place, most vendors will then only need to test their current generation of Windows applications against Linux, not re-write them. With this in place, there will be a broad rush to support Linux, as these ISVs must know that Microsoft will be the last one moving core applications to the Linux platform, and that they will therefore be safe in pursuing business in this new space. In the end, this may precipitate the reverse of the events which led to their current monopoly status. Around ten years ago, a major shift in platforms occurred, when users started migrating from DOS to Windows. By virtue of Windows being their own new platform, Microsoft was first with a word-processor, a spreadsheet, a Windows database, and many of the other 'staple' desktop applications. This placed them in pole position to snare as much of the applications market as possible. By the time Lotus, Borland and Software Publishers developed equivalent apps, Microsoft had a big lead. Product bundling, likely anti-competitive practices, possible use of secret APIs to enhance performance and capabilities of their own apps and closed proprietary file formats allowed them to wrest the remainder of the remainder of the market from their competitors. Linux will herald a new age, when Microsoft will be the last to market, and will not have the ability to use secret API calls (as Linux source is open to all ISVs.) Microsoft, if they ever decide to join the Linux bandwagon, will most likely be late, and will have to play like everyone else.
Following further in the footsteps, or perhaps flavour of science, let's make some prognostications for the (near) future. What immediate changes will become obvious if open source becomes more and more prevalent, in both use, and acceptance in the IT industry. Some possibilities are:
Con Zymaris is presently Managing Director of Cybersource Pty. Ltd. a long-standing IT & Internet Professional Services company. Con has been using and programming computers since 1979, and using the Internet since 1989 and is an enthusiastic advocate for open-source software libre. While computers were always a passion which morphed into a career, at the University of Melbourne he actually studied Physics. Con is married and has one (very) active and happy son.
SourceXchange, an affiliate of O'Reilly & Associates, was founded in conjunction with HP, the founding sponsor. The two companies plan to launch the service in early summer with an array of open-source development projects from HP that expand its commitment to open-source technologies. Pending a successful beta launch in July, sourceXchange will accept projects from other enterprise sponsors.
"HP came to us with a challenge," said Brian Behlendorf, chief technology officer for O'Reilly & Associates. "They wanted to further the development of specific open-source software projects, but they needed a better way to reach out to the wider developer community and coordinate the development process. HP makes for an ideal partner to launch the service, as they have made a very strong commitment to various open-source projects, including Linux, and their core business objectives are quite compatible with this new model for software development." SourceXchange was developed under the direction of Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache project, a leading open source initiative, and core developer of the market-leading Apache Web server.
"HP wanted to make a lasting and visionary contribution to the open-source movement while demonstrating our faith in the open-source developer and development model," said Wayne Caccamo, manager of HP's Open Source Solutions Operation. "We partnered with Brian Behlendorf and O'Reilly to ensure that sourceXchange would become a reality."
"The sourceXchange is an essential step in the evolution of open source," said Tim O'Reilly, chief executive officer of O'Reilly & Associates. "In the past year, everyone from computer vendors to large end users have realized the immense power of the open-source software-development model. But it's often hard for companies to hook up with the right people in the open-source community. sourceXchange will change that. This new service brings the corporate world and the open-source community together on the Web, and gives them the tools to manage development projects online."
The sourceXchange is a Web site that maintains a database of all published project RFPs posted by corporate sponsors, registers open-source developers and their teams, manages RFP responses from the developer community, and manages payment. It also will incorporate peer review and project milestones to ensure quality and reliability of each development project.
For project sponsors, sourceXchange can extend software-development resources and budgets with a simple, compelling outsourcing option that can improve time to market and open-source software-development predictability. Working with an intermediary also shields sponsors from the complexities of the conventional contracting engagement process.
For open-source developers, sourceXchange provides access to a database of challenging and enriching projects and a community of potential collaborators. Moreover, developers are compensated for their work in cash or in kind. The code developed will be contributed back to the open-source community to help accelerate the open-source movement.
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