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Ten things you didn't know about open source

By   |  April 20, 2007

One of the world’s leading advocates of the open source software movement, Brian Behlendorf gave a talk at the Digital Freedom Expo at the University of the Western Cape on Thursday, entitled “Ten things you may not know about open source”.

Behlendorf was a key developer of the Apache Web server, upon which more than half the world’s websites run.

Here are the ten things which you may well not have know about open source software.

1. Open Source predates proprietary software.

The common view is that open source is some sort of radical new idea, but in fact, although not expressly called open source, early computer software’s source code was open to viewing and changes. In the early days of computing, when mainframes would be delivered in trucks, companies were supplied software and were actually expected to modify it. This model was the norm and it was only around 1976 when Bill Gates posted a famous letter on the Homebrew Computing Club demanding that people stop sharing his Altair BASIC that the idea of proprietary software began to emerge. The Free Software Foundation was started in 1985 in response to what was seen as the new idea of keeping software code secret.

2. Apache kept the Web flat and free

Apache was launched in 1995, at the time Netscape was the dominant Web browser and there was a fear that if the same company could own the browser market and the server market they would have too much control and could charge companies a tax of sorts for web hosting. Apache’s launch was done with a dual purpose. There was the pragmatic aspect of combining efforts for better development and there was the idealistic aspect of keeping HTTP (Hypertext transfer protocol) as an open standard.

3. Open SSL kept cryptography available to everyone

Open SSL is a library of mathematical routines used for encryption of data that Behlendorf believes is the best great example of “security through transparency”. At the time the US military was very concerned about the dangers that data encryption might serve and the government classified encryption of greater than 40 bits as “ammunition”, making it illegal to export any software with more than 40 bit encryption (This is a very insecure and easily cracked encryption level, current security standards sit at 128 bit encryption). Open SSL, which was able to provide encryption on an open source platform rendered this law moot. Because the code that was responsible for the encryption could be seen, it could be trusted. Incidentally, this encryption law still exists within the US, but it does not apply to open source software.

4. Open Source helped free the human genome

Before the mapping of the human genome had been completed, a commercial consortium, Celera, was sequencing the genome with the intention of patenting it. This preposterous idea of patenting a discovery rather than an invention began to get many geneticists concerned. In about 2002 a doctoral student, Jim Kent, wrote 10 000 lines of Perl code to make a program that could perform the number crunching of raw data that was necessary in sequencing the genome. This program was then run over 100 Linux servers and the entire genome was successfully sequenced a few months before Celera finished.

5. Microsoft loves open source

As odd as it sounds, Behlendorf explained that Microsoft has benefitted from open source development and also included software, which although not labeled “open source”, had the source code openly provided. The first use of TCP/IP in Windows was a port of Berkley’s code. He sited the work that Microsoft was doing with open source programs such as MySQL, SugarCRM and JBoss. Codeshare, Channel 9 and other websites were also cited as positive signs that the proprietary giant is openeing further, as Behlendorf put it, “dragged kicking and screaming into the future”.

6. Altruism is not the only reason why people contribute to open source software

Many contributors use the software professionally and find that doing things such as fixing bugs and adding features is much easier when collaborating within a group. According to a survey done in 2006, the existing base of FLOSS represents 131 000 real person years of developmental effort. The costs of sharing code are low while the benefits are high.

6. Online communities can actually get things done

While international collaboration between various volounteer contributors is innately prone to chaotic disorder, there is a new kind of software management that is emerging that maximises the number of volounteers and their potential to make a difference. Because there is transparency, anyone can see what has been done on the project, making it easy to join in on the project and get up to speed.

7. The most important freedom: the right to fork

Anyone can create their own version of an existing piece of open source software. This is important in preventing a vendor lock-in. This aspect of OSS is the essential check on the power of the development leader as they must be open enough to the needs and wants of the team that they do not drive people to another project.

9. Open source can still change the world

Behlendorf strongly believes in the power of open source to make the world a better place, citing many examples. Within government, he believes that open source software can help immensely in counting election votes in a trustworthy way and also with transparency of government’s actions and policy. For countries such as China where there is restricted acces on the internet, open source has already been successful on helping people within these countries get greater access by overcoming the censorship exerted on them. Third world development can benefite greatly through initiatives such as the One Laptop Per Child project which runs on entirely open source software for the dual purpose of making it cheaper to produce and so that it can be modified to suite each country’s specific needs. Fighting digital rights management was another example given.

10. Open source needs your help (whoever you are)

One doesn’t have to be a programmer to be able to help out on open source projects. To begin you can help by just trying it out. Recommended programs that can be run off a Windows system include the Open Office office suite and the Firefox Web browser. There are a number of “live” CD distributions of Linux that can be tried out without affecting your CD, such as Ubuntu. Open source development happens through forums and participation in a forum can help. If you encounter a bu in an open source application, reporting it can also be helpful to the developers. Another way for bilingual non-programmers to help is in translating the text of the program.


4 Responses to “Ten things you didn't know about open source”

  1. Tim Hunkapiller
    April 21st, 2007 @ 12:00 am

    Celera did not :intend\” to patent the Human Genome – that was not legally possible then or now. They were after some number of use patents for using genetic sequences as markers for assays and drugs. Whether that was good or bad, it had been around a long time before Celera and still is today. Kent\’s software didn\’t compete against Celera, but against the other public efforts sequencing the genome. Celera, in fact, beat the public effort, but they announced together (at the White House). Celera\’s assembly program headed up by Gene Myers and Granger Sutton sis just fine in completing the Celera version of the Genome.

  2. orcmid
    April 23rd, 2007 @ 12:00 am

    On #1. The switch to proprietary software did not come with Altair Basic and Bill Gates. Although there was bundled software with mainframes, and user organizations exchanged a great deal of public source code, there was also proprietary software, often spun out by a company that had developed something nifty in-house and then sold it to other companies.

    Also, a big move in proprietary mainframe software occurred when IBM was \”encouraged\” to unbundle and also not interfere with competing database and sorting software packages, among others.

    The same was true in the minicomputer industry, where there were many proprietary packages for various vertical applications, including turnkey systems not provided by the hardware manufacturers.

    Proprietary developer tools were also common, and there was indeed the informal open-source done alongside (around Unix in particular). There was a thriving freeware/open-source activity on Apple ][ and CP/M, along with proprietary software (Electric Pencil, WordStar, etc.), although shareware seemed to be a unique PC contribution.

    It is important to remember that software was not originally thought to be copyrightable subject matter, and software patents took even longer to happen. That meant that proprietary software was treated as trade secrets and there were some noteworthy law suits around theft of software.

  3. Joe Grossberg
    August 25th, 2007 @ 12:00 am

    Open Source would mean I could submit a patch that there is 6, 6, 7 instead of 6, 7, 8 … rather than waiting for your next release. 😉

    Nice post, otherwise. Some really good points. The web without Apache and SSL ain\’t the web.

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