Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Aug 03, 2005
Info-Tech - Insight
Columns - Zero Base
Open source software is a movement that is gathering momentum
Specifications, of the sub-10K computer, as reported by the media, speak of Linux, the free Unix-type operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds.
And the Union Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Mr Dayanidhi Maran, who had unveiled the gizmo, said that initially Microsoft operating system was given up in favour of Linux, on cost considerations.
Surprisingly, however, the press release posted on www.hclinfosystems.com has no mention of Linux, while describing the `most affordable PC range for India' as being equipped with "a 1 GHz processor, 128 MB RAM, 40 GB hard disk, 15" digital colour monitor, 52X optical drive, keyboard and scroll mouse" and "ready to support applications like word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and web browsing, e-mail clients, audio Video playback" and bundled with multi-lingual fonts.
But it adds that the company is "also releasing in this range PCs based on Intel architecture as well the PCs that come with Microsoft's Special Starter Edition," though the communiqué is silent about the price of such PCs.
Be that as it may, it is noteworthy that open source software (OSS) has made it possible for manufacturers to break a five-digit price barrier. Therefore, it was an enthusiastic Minister who spoke about starting, within a month or two, an open source centre for developing OSS in Chennai, so that prices come down and people benefit. If you're among the very few who are open enough to ask what open source and OSS are, here's some help.
The phrase `open source' denotes that the origins of a product are publicly accessible in part or in whole, explains Wikipedia. OSS has freely available source code, which lets anybody create a new version of the software, it adds. Source code, for starters, is the listing of program lines readable by human beings; as distinguished from object code that can be figured out by the computer. Thus, for example, source code of a program written using a computer language such as `C' can be perused by anybody with the knowledge of that language for deciphering the logic used by the author of the program, and also modifying the lines, if necessary.
OSS doesn't just mean access to the source code, clarifies http://opensource.org, and lays down ten criteria that the distribution terms of OSS must comply with.
Foremost is `free redistribution' without requiring any royalty or other fee, in the interest of long-term gains, rather than "a few short-term sales dollars".
Norms of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) include that the licence must allow modifications and derived works "to support independent peer review and rapid evolutionary selection", ensure diversity by not discriminating against any person or groups or fields of endeavour, and be technology-neutral.
"The basic idea behind open source is very simple," states OSI's Web site, while extolling the `astonishing' pace at which software evolves, in comparison to the slow pace of conventional software development, even as more people improve, adapt and debug the code.
"The `open source' label came out of a strategy session held in Palo Alto in reaction to Netscape's January 1998 announcement of a source code release for Navigator (as Mozilla)," says http://en.wikipedia.org. The birth of the Internet in the 1960s is seen as a major milestone in openness. Inspired by `free' as in `free speech' Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985, "dedicated to promoting computer users' rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs", as www.fsf.org declares.
It was in January last year that Stallman met the President, Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, to discuss the use of OSS in critical applications. Mr Kalam has been forthright with his views on open source as this snatch from his speech at the Indian Navy's Weapons and Electronic System Engineering Establishment shows: "Open source codes can easily introduce the users to build security algorithms in the system without the dependence of proprietary platforms. We should take maximum care to ensure that our solution is unique to protect our own defence security solutions implemented on open platforms."
While on the origins of OSS, don't skip the 1997 essay `The Cathedral and the Bazaar' by Eric Raymond, where he suggested the `bazaar model' for developing OSS.
The opposite of OSS is closed source software, exemplified by most proprietary ones that not only obfuscate source code but also demand a fee for the use of software copies. Microsoft's Windows is a popular example of such a product a.k.a. commercial software development. Bill Gates may take credit for open source, as in this quote, posted on www.brainyquote.com: "The reason you see open source there at all is because we came in and said there should be a platform that's identical with millions and millions of machines."
But if you want to know more about the debate between open and closed, catch up with the work of Harvard Business School professors Pankaj Ghemawat and Ramon Casadesus-Masanell who apply formal economic modelling to the competitive dynamics of the software wars. "Is there a scenario where Linux could be kicked out of the market by Microsoft?" is one of the questions in an interview with the authors posted recently on http://hbswk.hbs.edu.
"Within our model the only way in which Microsoft can get rid of Linux is by setting the price at zero", says the duo.
If you are flummoxed that OSS militates against all economic sense, Martha Lagace's article in HBS Working Knowledge, titled `The Simple Economics of Open Source' may help; it is about the work of Josh Lerner and Jean Tirole.
The pair speaks of two type of economic rewards that accrue to OSS developers: One, immediate rewards such as monetary compensation; and two delayed rewards, called the `signalling incentive', in the form of future job offers, access to venture capital, ego gratification and peer recognition.
The Web site www.microsoft.com has a glossary that defines open source as "a movement in the programming community for making source code (program instructions) free and freely available to anyone interested in using or working with it". The movement seemed to have worked within about five years of its existence, because Microsoft wrote in a 2003 quarterly report filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission that "the popularisation of the open-source movement continues to pose a significant challenge to the company's business model," as one learns from www.computerworld.com.
The company seemed to have been rattled by "efforts by proponents of the open-source model to convince governments worldwide to mandate the use of open-source software in their purchase and deployment of software products".
The future isn't closed yet on OSS, and as at present it is a happening area. As I write this, OSCON 2005 or the O'Reilly Open Source Convention is on in Oregon exploring "three deep trends affecting open source: the commoditisation of software, network-enabled collaboration, and software customisability," as http://conferences.oreillynet.com outlines. There, "a new rating system designed to make open-source applications less of a leap of faith and offer nervous corporations something of an application track record debuted," reports www.redherring.com, on Business Readiness Ratings (BRR) sponsored by Carnegie Mellon West Center for Open Source Investigation and others.
On open and closed, Alexander Graham Bell's insight is that when one door closes another door opens. He rued that we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.
Similarly, when closed software labour like black boxes, and oftentimes crash inscrutably, it may be as much a folly to seek shelter behind them as would be to fantasise comfort within locked out doors.
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