Thursday, August 27, 2009

SETI, Open source, and the socialisation of productivity

What does SETI have to do with Microsoft's furrowed brow?

We all know the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, whereby the universe is scanned for signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum which can be interpreted as originating with intelligent life. Some of us have run SETI@home: you download a screensaver, which runs in the background, borrowing your unused computer time to run a parcel of number crunching for SETI. Everybody wins: only your idle computer time is used, and it can have some wider community benefit - you may even be responsible for the first discovery of extraterrestrial life.

That was the first distributed grid computing project to gain widespread publicity. But the software is now available to turn any general project requiring major computer time into a socialised project. The Herald recently ran an article on Australian use of such software: specifically, BOINC, The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. The article said over 32,000 Australians were currently running BOINC projects, out of 1.7 million people worldwide.

The scope is tremendous, not just for general scientific research, but also for any community-sector project that may not otherwise have the resources to get off the ground.

For the moment, here's a list of projects you may wish to take part in. Those are all scientific research, mainly in biology, physics and maths, but there's also a World Community Grid, which is specifically aimed at humanitarian projects.

As for Microsoft, the other side of community computing is software: open source, to be specific: generally an open source project is contributed to by many, with no profit-oriented copyright - and generally available for free. Open Office may be the most famous - a direct competitors to Microsoft's Office suite. And as a method of developing software that is freely available to all, it has gained acceptance in most areas of my professional focus, business intelligence. Apart from the well-known mySQL database, there are also open source tools available for most related areas. As well as database and BI software, there's also ETL, data profiling, and so on.

Over time, you should expect prices to tumble in all types of software directly affected by open source initiatives. Yes, the likes of Microsoft can expect some buffering from these forces due to brand-name strength. But yes too, Microsoft is worried enough that they are already working on alternative revenue streams, including jumping into the cloud. Those alternatives shouldn't see a collapse of capitalism any time soon, but the long-term trend can only benefit the public, particularly those who might not otherwise be able to afford such computer resources, particularly in the developing world.

In a wider sense, distributed computing and open source are simply harbingers of a globalisation and socialisation of productivity, for the benefit of all.

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