As far as revolutions go, the opening salvo was muffled. But for
those within earshot, the reverberations were far- reaching. Last
month, China - the largest single potential market for almost
anything - selected an upstart computer-operating system called
Linux for installation on 1 million computers next year. Ultimately,
the country plans to install similar systems on 100 million to 200
But the deal represents much more than a software deal - or
China's declaration of independence from software giant Microsoft.
Analysts say it marks a significant victory for an emerging way of
building things. Open and highly dispersed networks of motivated
people are organizing around galvanizing ideas, often offering
results of their work for free.
Such collaborative networks have long been part of human
experience, from scientific research to terrorism. But as the
approach moves into the commercial realm, especially the software
business, it's challenging fundamental notions about who owns ideas
and how best to foster innovation.
"Whether it's the rise of a global civil society, economic
globalization, or the war against terrorism, all of these things are
extremely information-dependent," says John Arquilla, professor of
defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey,
Calif. "The software issue offers us a whole new way of looking at
Known as "open source" in the software world, the concept is
spreading to other arenas. At the end of September, for instance,
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.,
announced that it had reached its initial goal of posting course
materials for 500 of its classes on the Web. Eventually, the school
plans to post online material for virtually all its 2,100 formal
courses. The material can be used freely by anyone and altered to
meet local needs, as long as MIT is credited as the source for the
material and no one charges for it.
Its name, "Open Courseware," is a direct nod to open-source
software as its model. "The emergence of Linux was like a global
barn-raising," bringing free, high-quality software to countries and
institutions that otherwise might get left behind in the global
information economy, says Steven Lerman, director of MIT's Center
for Educational Computing Initiatives. "If we're successful, we'd
like to see the same effect" in higher education.
Similar networks have been built around the human genome project
and its descendants; the offering by artists of free online music;
and a new research-journal project called the Public Library of
Science. Even Al Qaeda has incorporated the approach to build its
loosely knit network of terrorist cells.
Its most visible manifestation, however, remains software.
Although the open-source approach had been around for decades, it
took off in 1991, when Helsinki University student Linus Torvalds
took a freely available, stripped-down version of UNIX software and
modified it for a PC.
He posted the code; others began to use it, found and fixed bugs,
added features, and "Linux" began to spread. Today, Linux has moved
into a distant-but-solid second place behind Microsoft for software
that runs network computers called "servers" in corporations, banks,
and government offices worldwide. During the third quarter of 2003,
the number of servers shipping with Microsoft's software grew by
some 21 percent over the third quarter of '02. The number of servers
shipped with Linux grew 51 percent, according to IDC, an analysis
firm in Framingham, Mass.
An increasing number of countries, particularly in the developing
world, are turning to Linux and open-source software. China's deal
may help accelerate that, analysts say. In addition, China, Japan,
and South Korea are reported to be joining forces on a new open-
source software project that would focus on everything from new
applications to a new operating system. …