JOSE, Calif. It powers more than 70% of all
Web servers and routes much of the world's
e-mail traffic. It makes surfing the Internet
simple and provides the muscle behind Google's
search engine and countless e-commerce sites.
open-source software, a wide spectrum of
programs developed not under the lock and key of
a single company but by the communal efforts of
volunteers who often start with little more than
common interests and e-mail discussion groups.
the software once branded the byproduct of
dreamers, academics and hobbyists is the
foundation of the Internet economy. It's forcing
established companies to rethink their business
models. And it's giving Microsoft and other
entrenched entities a run for their money.
best known open-source software, the Linux
operating system, has grabbed a chunk of the
server business once held by the Unix operating
system, a field dominated by vendors like
Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems. Now
Linux is now emerging as a desktop contender.
open-source operating system, FreeBSD, is a
basic building block of Apple Computer's Mac OS
less visible projects are making an impact. The
Apache project created the world's leading Web
server, the software that relays content to Web
browsers. Sendmail invented e-mail standards and
remains a contender today. Even the basic task
of translating a Web address from common words
into numbers is predominantly handled by an
open-source undertaking, the Berkeley Internet
Name Domain project, or BIND.
share a simple philosophy: Grant a free license
to users, include the software blueprints and
let anyone make improvements with as few
restrictions as possible. Sometimes, depending
on the license, improvements must be made freely
belief was if you give this really generous
license, it builds the biggest audience
possible," said Brian Behlendorf, a founder
of Apache. "And if you do that, you
inherently build the largest pool of people
interested in contributing back.
it idealism," he said. "It's certainly
very idealistic, but it works."
Linux and thousands of other projects, Apache
has roots in academia. It emerged in 1995,
partly from fear that a single company might
control both Web servers and browsers.
company wasn't Microsoft but Netscape
Communications. It had hired away the leading
developers at the University of Illinois'
National Center for Supercomputing Applications,
which had created an early browser, Mosaic, and
Web server, HTTPd.
the Illinois center also had given away the
server's source code with just one condition:
that any redistributions give it credit.
early webmasters, including Behlendorf, started
an e-mail discussion group and started sharing
their software patches. The group eventually
decided to name their project "Apache"
after the last Native American tribe to
surrender in the United States.
else said it makes for a good pun because we're
combining all of our patches together so it's a
'patchy' server," said Behlendorf, who like
the others is working for other companies that
are building on Apache.
part because of its low cost, companies saw
little reason to build competing server
software. Some, like IBM, chose to build
additional proprietary software on top of it to
run Web-based applications. Others, like Apple,
simply include the Apache product with their
1999, Apache's success forced the developers to
form the nonprofit Apache Software Foundation,
which today supports about 20 projects that add
more functions to the core server software.
still don't have any full-time staff, but we do
have a legal structure that allows us to answer
any of the questions that a company might
have," Behlendorf said.
communal aspects of open source can lead to
thorny legal questions, particularly when a
company claims its proprietary code has seeped
into a project. Because developers typically
don't offer warranties, end users could be held
liable for infringements.
the case with Linux, which the SCO Group claims
has incorporated its Unix source code without
permission. It's filed a handful of lawsuits
against end users and has threatened more legal
action, though Linux supporters dismiss its
claims as unfounded.
open-source projects have taken different
an e-mail project that dates to the Internet's
early years, formed a company, Sendmail Inc. Its
commercial offering is built on top of an
open-source project and offers additional
features including legal protection to
corporate customers. It now has about 40% of the
e-mail server market.
Olson, Sendmail Inc.'s chairman and co-founder,
describes the Sendmail project's licensing as
more open than other projects a policy that
opens the door to experimentation and testing
among its users, particularly as new e-mail
standards are being proposed to stem the tidal
wave of unwanted messages.
fact, Sendmail is partnering with traditional
companies like Microsoft and Yahoo to test their
proposals for spam-busting.
frankly, we're not on a political mission to
change the world to open source," he said.
"We think it's useful. It's probably the
best way to drive innovation. And it's a very
good way to develop standards."
source also has captured the attention of
traditional technology companies. IBM,
Hewlett-Packard and Sun have all emerged as
supporters of the movement.
projects that originated in the early days of
computing or the Internet, the corporate players
have an ulterior motive, said Corey Ferengul, an
analyst at the Meta Group research firm.
open sourcing it so that they can sell you other
stuff," he said. "Let's be realistic,
vendors do not open source technology for the
good of the community. They open source it to be
able to sell other technology."
the emergence and adoption of open-source
software also is indicative of a fundamental
change in the software industry, said Tim
O'Reilly, a publisher of high-tech books.
he says, is becoming commoditized just as the
personal computer did in the 1980s. Just as some
companies like Microsoft and Intel Corp. made a
fortune leveraging that open platform then,
businesses are searching to find ways to build
on open source today.
many traditional software companies and even
some open-source developers aren't grasping
the magnitude of the change, O'Reilly says. As a
result, upstarts are reaping the benefits, while
those who don't react fast enough could be left
behind as IBM was in the PC revolution.
speeches to industry conferences, O'Reilly poses
a simple question to make a point: How many
people in the group use the open-source Linux
operating system? Depending on the audience, as
few as 10% of hands are raised.
then asks the crowd how many use Google. Nearly
everyone acknowledges use of the popular search
engine, which he points out runs Linux as the
foundation of its estimated 100,000 computers.
Google's search algorithms are built on top of
think what you use is what's on the computer in
front of you," he says. "That's a
fundamental change that I think the industry
hasn't come to terms with yet."
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