Software traditionally has been “closed”, meaning that the code has not been available for public viewing or modification. Not surprising, because more than hardware, software has become the engine for much of the growth in the last decade. Software has also been the reason for the huge success of companies like Microsoft and Oracle.
There are two discontinuities happening in the world of Software. The first is Open Source, and the second is the shift from a packaged product to a service. Open Source makes software freely available under licence for use and modification. Examples of Open Source software are Linux and Apache.
Open Source is a different way of doing the software business. Amy Wohl summarises its advantages and disadvantages to developers and software users:
- Supports a world-wide community of developers
- Self-organizing; adapts to the goals of the group, not to any one constituent community
- Software evolves based on input from many sources
- Best work rewarded with world-wide reputation
- Bugs can be found and fixed more quickly
- Access to expertise outside your organization
- No single point of control
- Potential fragmentation; no single standard
- Lack of direction may lead to lack of progress
- Resources can’t be scheduled or held to account
- No direct economic return for effort
- Developers may withhold best work for the commercial (profit-making) sector
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion on Open Source and its licencing terms. Ludwig Siegele puts this in context (Economist, April 12, 2001):
It was only in the 1970s, as computing spread, that firms such as Microsoft started to withhold the source code, thereby making software proprietary and turning it into a big business. Firms can sell a program without revealing the instructions that underlie it, just as Coca-Cola can market its soft drinks without giving away its secret recipe (though there have been plenty of attempts at reverse engineering, in software as well as soft drinks).
Many early hackers were horrified by the decision to withhold the source code. Proprietary software was “spiritually wasteful”, they said, because it discouraged co-operation. One of them, Richard Stallman, founded the Free Software Foundation in 1983 and developed the concept of “copyleft” (as opposed to copyright), which he codified in a licence that now comes with most open-source software. It states that developers can do whatever they want with the programs, even sell their own versions, as long as they make the source code available.
Although this licence, called the General Public License (GPL), has never been enforced, it has done much to keep open-source software from splintering into competing commercial versions, open-source advocates say. The GPL, in effect, removes the incentive to turn a program into a proprietary product, they argue, because the licence is “viral”: all changes to the source code automatically become part of the software commons. That is why James Allchin, who is in charge of operating systems at Microsoft, recently called the licence an “intellectual-property destroyer”.