Network: Open source offers the road away from Microsoft

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK marked a few more milestones on the Road Ahead Without Microsoft. The recently released Linux Office Suite ( is the first comprehensive office productivity package based on open-source code that can compete with Windows. It delivers powerful performance on spreadsheet, word processor, presentation graphics, database programs and various other exciting goodies.

The beauty of it is that the source code to the software is free, and you are welcome to improve on it and distribute these improvements to your friends and other people seeking Bill-Gates-free screens.

Linux, the operating system that is supported by a community of developers, rather than a single company, has finally moved to the level where your accounts can be completed and presentations prepared without the guys from Redmond getting their usual bounty.

The second important event of the week was an announcement from Sun Microsystems, indicating its intention to include a new version of Linux on its workstations and servers, alongside Solaris, Sun's proprietary operating system. The momentum behind open-source software is moving it to the mission-critical environment where Sun currently operates. It is not just the humble spreadsheets, but large-scale e-commerce, banking and high-traffic websites that will soon be using open-source software.

The road away from Microsoft and proprietary software, and toward open- source code, has been long in the making. The advantages are numerous, mainly because open-source software is subjected to a critical peer review by a collaborating programming community. That process is equivalent to scientific paper peer-evaluation, and generally guarantees faster debugging and higher reliability levels than proprietary software such as Windows.

There is an assumption among many professional software buyers that, because the software was developed by someone on a salary, it is a product of guaranteed quality. From my many years of working on software teams, it has become clear to me that this is an entirely incorrect line of reasoning. There is nothing less guaranteed than a piece of code developed in a hurry by a tired programmer, who then has to fit that in some mega-application, and think through all the implications of any small change in his code on the whole product. Since code developed for commercial release is inevitably written in a hurry, with commercial pressures never allowing enough time for testing and debugging, the odds on its having high reliability are minimal (see the whole history of Windows development - or rather, on- going debugging).

The example of a successful redevelopment of an open-source application can be found with the new version of Netscape. One of the heroes of the open-source community is Jamie Zovinsky (, who developed a Unix version of Netscape, and is responsible for overseeing the release of the Netscape source code. Jamie is one of the key people on Mozilla (www.mozilla. org), which manages and maintains the dialogue between Netscape and thousands of developers who contribute improvements to the browser. Thanks to the release of the source code, many people were able to add their own 10-pence worth of new functionality, which should result in taking the browser concept to the next generation of cybertools.

Jamie is a hacker, but a converted one, and his choice of literature (comics) should not be held against him on the day of reckoning, mainly owing to his contribution to moving tightly held proprietary code to the realms of open-source software.

Other examples of successful open-source code development can be found by looking at the Internet key tools. You will notice that most of the key components of the network are based on open source software. Sendmail, developed by another legend, Eric Allman, is the most obscure, but also most useful, electronic e-mail server, and is behind the operations of every single Unix box in the world - and therefore is an engine driving all Internet service providers' e-mail solutions. Perl, another open-source software, is behind all those neat competitions you enter online. Various open-source TCP/IP stacks and utility suites are behind most of the live content on the Web. This is a stunningly successful set of products, and many companies would kill to gain ownership of the code. Luckily, the community of developers managed to sweat out the products that just kept getting better, providing lots of fun to all involved. Both users and developers of the Internet are acting in a manner similar to a closed feedback loop, where progress is inherent in the generic philosophy of ongoing improvement.

The quality of these products is extremely high, as they endure and survive the Internet's monstrous growth without compromising mission critical requirements. So it was no surprise that one of the top stars of open source, Linux, got PC Magazine's award for technical innovation of the year for the Best Network Operating System.

The typical objections to open source code is usually that a code without an owner is less reliable than the code with an owner. However, that really depends on the owner and his goals, values and integrity. If the owner of the code just wants it out of the doors making money when still half- baked (as is often the case with real-world rapid development applications), then the reliability of such a code will always be questionable. Those products are mostly only usable from version 3 onwards, at least according to Bill Gates's comments on the reliability of Windows.

Open-source development philosophy ensures that many eyes and brains are available for fast debugging and redevelopment, thus offering high- class products quite early in the development cycle. Complex software development is often a numbers game, and open-source code has the advantage here over underfunded and hurried commercial development teams.

So will we see a change in commercial software development practice? It's too early to say - but the release of an open-source office suite that competes with Windows is a giant step towards ending the Microsoft monopoly.