American beauty - love it or leave it

American beauty - love it or leave it

By Bruce Harris

For the last twenty years, operating system software has been a thing of populist beauty taking computers from something few of us wanted to know about to something we can't do without. These operating systems have been crucial in leading us all to the keyboard and they have pretty much all been American.

The method for the development and distribution of these American beauties has been a proprietary one. A company develops the software and licenses it to users for money. It protects the source code with all the intellectual property laws available to it.

A strong challenge to this proprietary model and the companies that use it has emerged in the form of open source software. This comes in many forms. However, the underlying idea is that the developer gives the source code away with the software. It is freely available for others to use subject to the requirement that they in turn must agree to pass on the code along with any improvements they make.

The signs of the increasing acceptance of this new challenger, particularly the Linux version, are everywhere. IBM and other large players are investing billions in Linux initiatives. The Taiwanese National Centre of High Performance Computing has an open source software development project. In Finland, about 13 percent of government servers are running on Linux. India, the sleeping giant of the software world, has initiatives to establish open source software in government and academic institutions. India's Centre for Development of Advanced Computing announced in March that it would use Linux software in its High Performance Computing laboratory in Bangalore.

There are two special indicators of the seriousness of the challenge to the established order. The first is what is happening in Northern Asia, which I think will be the next dominant force in the world economy given what seems to me to be the irresistible force of the growing combination of Japanese finance, Korean Internet leadership and the Chinese market. In the software sense, this area is not anti-American but it is distinctly "wary-American" and a move to open source software is part of that.

The Federation of Korean Information Industries has instigated an alliance with Chinese and Japanese software industry associations to cooperate to develop and promote open source software to government and business. Last year, the Korean government migrated 120,000 of its civil servants to Linux desktops.

The Chinese government, for national security reasons, has long been uncomfortable relying on American software. One of the arguments in favour of open source software is the very fact that the code is open to examination by the user. Microsoft has sought to overcome this perceived disadvantage by giving the Chinese government access to Windows' source code as part of its Government Security Program. NATO, Russia and the United Kingdom are also part of this Program. The political difficulties surrounding the Iraq conflict, which even saw allies such as France and Germany have serious policy differences with the United States, may influence governments to consider open source software.

The second interesting development is the consideration being given to laws to require that open source software be taken into account in government purchasing decisions. This is happening even within the United States. Laws have been proposed in Texas and Oregon which would require state agencies to consider open source products when purchasing computer software and to "provide justification whenever a proprietary software product is acquired rather than open source software." These proposals are still only that but the fact that they are even being considered represents a very dangerous thin edge of the wedge for proprietary software companies. Peru and Finland are two other countries where parliaments have been considering such laws.

None of this changes the fact that open source software at present represents only a tiny fraction of the world's systems. However, it is clear that it is here to stay and that, for the first time, there is a real alternative. It is not necessarily time to do anything about it from your organisation's point of view but it is a development well worth watching. We will be.

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