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An open world
How open-source (like Linux) will fare without an enemy like Microsoft (the Windows) is one of several open-ended questions it must face. But then, it’s always faced open-ended question, and those questions always, somehow, get answered. Indeed at recent conference, Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, was asked about his long-term vision for it. He replied that he was an “anti-visionary”. When people looked too far into the distance, Torvalds said, they missed things in front of them and stumbled. In fact, the Linux is obvious: it is becoming big business, fast.
This is because for all its flaws, the open-source model has powerful advantages. The deepest and also most interesting of these advantages is that, put in grossly, open-source takes the sham out of software. It severely limits the possibility of proprietary “lock-in” – where users become hostage to the software vendors whose products they buy – and therefore eliminates incentives for vendors to employ the many tricks they traditionally use on each other and then on customers.
The transparency inherent in the open-source model also limits secrecy and makes it harder to avoid accountability for shoddy work. People write code differently when they know the world is looking at it. Similarly, software companies behave differently when they know that customers who don’t like a product can fix it themselves or switch to another provider. On the available evidence, it appears that the secrecy and manoeuvring associated with the traditional proprietary software business generate enormous costs, inefficient, and resentment. Presented with an alternative, many people will leap at it.
What the future may hold.
Given its profound benefits, it is interesting to speculate on how the open-source model might evolve. Many believe that the model can spread to other industries. An obvious possibility is publishing: several interesting experiments are under way, including Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopaedia that lets anyone contribute articles or edit existing articles.
Another is the Publis Library of Science, which provides free referenced scientific journals on the web that visitors can reproduce or use to make derivative works, provided they credit the original authors. This scheme bypasses the huge, expensive (and phenomenally profitable) proprietary technical publishing industry.
Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are also considered to be fertile areas for open-source experimentation.
Finally, one wonders whether the best features of open-source could be combined with the advantages of the proprietary model. One possibility would be to add mechanisms for compensating independent open-source developers. There are interesting precedents. For example, in the music industry, members of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers receive compensation whenever their work is performed in public or played on the radio or television.
Similar compensation rights could be built into open-source code without cousing the lock-in problems associated with proprietary software. Vendors and users could choose whether or not to accept code that required compensation; they could rewrite expensive code and replace it; compensation rights could be negotiated, icluding the possibility of automatically terminating them after period of time.
Whether this happens or not, there seems little doubt that further evolution will occur. Steve Webber, a political scientist at the
Copyright 2005 Technology Reviews inc
Distributed by Tribune Media Services.
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