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Freeware: The Heart & Soul of the Internet
by Tim O'Reilly
Despite all Microsoft's efforts to convince
the world that the capital city of the Internet is in Redmond, and Netscape's rival
claims that it's in Mountain View, the real headquarters exist only in cyberspace,
in a worldwide, distributed community of developers who build on each other's work
by sharing not only ideas but the source code that implements those ideas.
Netscape's recent decision to make source code for its browser freely available was
an acknowledgement of something old Internet hands have known all along: free software
is the heart and soul of the Internet.
Despite all Microsoft's efforts to convince the world that the capital city of the
Internet is in Redmond, and Netscape's rival claims that it's in Mountain View, the
real headquarters exist only in cyberspace, in a worldwide, distributed community
of developers who build on each other's work by sharing not only ideas but the source
code that implements those ideas.
Before you can fully appreciate the free software movement, you have to clear your
head of a few misconceptions.
First, you have to realize that while "free software" has generally been
available without cost to its users, what "free" really means is that a
program's source code is available, so that its users can customize or extend it.
As Richard Stallman, the creator of GNU emacs and one of free software's most ardent
spokesmen, put it says on his website (www.fsf.org), "Think free speech, not
free beer." For this reason, free software advocates have recently started championing
a new term: open source software.
Second, you have to get rid of the notion that freeware may be great for hackers,
but real companies can't depend on it.
Quick. Ask yourself what are the most "mission critical" pieces of software
on the Internet. Here's my list:
#1 BIND - the Berkeley Internet Name Daemon. This is the program that makes
the DNS work. Without it, you'd be typing addresses like 126.96.36.199 instead of
www.ibm.com. Like a great deal of the TCP/IP software on which the Internet depends,
Bind was originally created as part of one of the great early free software efforts,
Berkeley UNIX, and is now maintained by Paul Vixie of the Internet Software Consortium.
#2 Sendmail - An overwhelming majority of Internet email is routed by this
program, another Berkeley graduate. Sendmail is still maintained by its creator,
#3 Perl- The language of choice for most
CGI programming, and an indispensable tool for virtually all Internet site administrators, Perl
has been described as "the duct tape of the Internet." Originally created by Larry
Wall, Perl is now maintained by a group of several hundred programmers worldwide, who
communicate via an Internet mailing list. Larry maintains "artistic control" over
the language, but much of the actual ongoing development is carried out by others. A
well-defined extension mechanism allows for additional language modules to be created freely
#4 Apache - Despite all the attention
paid to Microsoft and
holds dominant market share among web servers. More than 50% of all web servers are powered by
Apache. Apache was created by a loose confederation called the Apache Group, who took over
development of the web server originally created at the National Center for Supercomputer
Applications (NCSA--the same outfit that built the original Mosaic browser).
If you go beyond Internet software, the picture becomes even stronger. Linux is the
only real challenger to Microsoft's monopoly on desktop operating systems. At 5 million
seats and growing, it's cheaper, more powerful, and more reliable than Microsoft's
offerings. Among programmer's tools, emacs is the editor of choice, and gcc the favored
In short, Netscape's freeware browser will be in good company.
For years, free software has been seen as part of the counterculture, a hacker thing.
But as is so often the case, the counterculture is really the new mainstream in disguise.
In the political sphere, instant communication over the Internet challenges dictatorships
and other closed societies. In the technical sphere, it challenges closed technologies.
Free markets--whether in goods or in ideas--are simply more powerful than centralized
The Internet itself was built through a collaborative process unique in the history
of the world. The IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force, is the organization
that creates and maintains the open standards on which Internet software is built.
But what an organization! It's an unincorporated association whose work is largely
carried out via Internet mailing lists and open meetings three times a year. Anyone
who wants to volunteer can join. The unofficial motto of the IETF was originally
uttered by MIT professor Dave Clark: "No kings, no presidents, just a rough
consensus and running code."
In this rough and tumble community, you gain status by what you give away. A good
idea has to be backed up by a good implementation, one that can be tested and improved
by your peers. As in so many other realms, the Internet itself has accelerated the
pace of innovation. Communication can be instantaneous and worldwide, allowing for
an unprecedented degree of collaboration.
In the rush to commercialize the Internet that happened in 1993 and 1994, companies
like Netscape abandoned the freeware model, only to find the pace of innovation falling
off and user acceptance diminishing, as centralized product planning replaced the
instant feedback loop provided by open source and collaborative development.
Netscape deserves an enormous amount of credit for recognizing their mistake and
returning to their roots.
Eric Raymond's groundbreaking paper,
Cathedral and the Bazaar, which inspired Netscape's decision, identifies some
of the key elements of the open source development model and explains why it is uniquely
suited to harnessing the power of the Internet for distributed, collaborative projects.
Apache holds dominant market share among web servers.
Free markets-- whether in goods or in ideas--are
simply more powerful than centralized ones.
In this rough and tumble community, you
gain status by what you give away.
Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.