Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tech: Open Source: secrets of the technically literate

A letter in the paper yesterday:

"Why are most computers still sold without Microsoft Office (Word, Excel,
etc.,) included in the price? It's like buying new trousers and then having
to have the zipper installed."

Why indeed? Doesn't everyone want Word and Excel? I know I do.Well actually, I want something that works like them, and is compatible with them. But I'd end up paying several hundred dollars extra for the privilege.

Whereas if I went to, I could download a free copy of OpenOffice, which is compatible with MS Office. I don't say fully compatible, because it's not identical to the Microsoft product. But it is very close. There are a few actions that are slightly different, but not enough to worry about.

Open Source is a remarkable trend. In a nutshell, Open Source software is developed collaboratively by a community of interested people. The source code (the guts of any software) is freely available to work with and modify. However, I think most people use open source software simply because it's free.

And it's free because of community. Oh, and I suspect Microsoft's global domination has something to do with it. There are two types of people in this world: (those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don't. Oops, I mean:) those who are bolted-on Microsoft followers, and those who are doggedly resentful of MS's size and market muscle. (... and there's those who don't care, those who don't know, those who use what they have to,...)

The open source paradigm has been a surprise success over the past 5 - 10 years. It first gained prominence with Linux, the free operating system written by Linus Torvalds and based on Unix, a programmer's dream environment that predates Macintosh and real Windows (ie w95 and over) by about 15 and 25 years respectively. Various commercial organisations built up their business by providing their own distributions (distros) for free, but making money from support services after that.

In recent times, major computer vendors such as Sun and IBM have embraced the Open Source movement - again, I think, partly as a response to Microsoft.

It's even got to the point that Microsoft has made moves to make some of its product Open Source. Not its big moneyspinners such as Windows and Office, but lesser products that it may want to promote, or is not dominant in the market of, or that give it entree into more lucrative sales. I expect Microsoft to find Open Source profitable by applying the paradigm carefully.

I expect Open Source to be a serious threat to Microsoft. However, as the largest company in the world, I also expect them to be fully aware of this.

Meanwhile, the public benefits. But at this point in time, only those in the know. And that will not include most readers of the local paper. Yet again, those in the know get the benefit some time before the word spreads. However, it's still early days.

Interesting to note how long in the evolution of mass computers that this phenomenon appeared. Some 15-odd years later, Open Source is still somewhat of a secret.
Why did it emerge? Why at this point. Again I would point to the dominance of Microsoft as encouraging reaction. Maybe if the market was less monolithic, it would have taken longer for it to emerge. But the most important aspect of this story is that we are talking about (dispersed) communities of people, banding together for the common good. [likewise the Wiki phenomenon, discussed here before.]

The internet has suddenly enabled common interest communities to find each other, regardless of the limited appeal of the interest and dispersed nature of the community.

It's good to see a form of community burgeoning at a time when the anti-communal, individualistic values of capitalism are so thoroughly overtaking traditional, human values.

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