Open source – another lesson in applied miracles

This week’s column. It’s pretty self explanatory.

For anyone who has arrived here via Counterpoint on ABC Radio National or the Courier Mail where this site is mentioned, welcome. I hope you like our site and you’ll come back for more.

Simples Surpreendente

I’m excited! Seriously chuffed.

Did you read my column a few weeks back which conveyed my excitement about Linux and open-source software? * Incredibly, by harnessing the power of the internet, this software sort of writes itself or rather is written by its own users. Microsoft, watch out!

Now open-source is cropping up in other places. For instance, within a few years we’ve seen an online free encyclopedia built from scratch to become one of the best in the world Wikipedia. Britannica watch out!

And in singing the praises of the power of open-source, it seems I’ve tapped into it myself or it’s tapped into me. Let me explain what open-source is and then why I’m so chuffed.

The program that runs Microsoft Word is called ‘Word.exe’ and if you own a copy, it sits on your hard drive. It consists of ‘binary machine code’ nothing but squillions of ‘1’s and ‘0’s which tell your computer how to respond to your various commands.

Of course the ultimate authors of ‘Word.exe’ were people. But they wrote Word as a recipe or a ‘source-code’ file in computer language which is special mix of words and symbols you learn at uni. Now, how often have you run across a bug or wanted a feature to work differently? Even if you had a Ph.D. in programming you couldn’t change it.

Why? Because Bill Gates keeps the source-code or for Word under as tight a lock and key as other recipes for printing money like the ones for Coke and KFC. The price he pays for hiding the recipe (to stop people copying his code), is that Microsoft takes a long while sometimes forever to fix bugs and enhance software features. The geeks writing the software have to have a system for discovering the bugs themselves, working out priorities and then writing the new code. But there’s another way.

Enter Linux.

Linux’s beginning was Finnish. Linus Torvalds, was a programming student in Finland. In 1991 he sent an e-mail to his newsgroup.

“I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional) . . . starting to get ready.”

Torvalds released Linux under a special ‘open-source’ copyright licence developed six years before which is sometimes called ‘copyleft’. This licence has the effect of saying to users “enjoy this software. Feel free to make improvements. But if you do, make them available to others as the original software was made available to you.” **

So while Microsoft paid programmers to produce code for users, (and market researchers to work out what improvements users wanted most) in the Linux world, if users wanted a bug fixed or a feature added, they did it for themselves.

So the feedback between writers and users of computer code was often faster, richer, better informed and a whole lot cheaper. Like those miraculous time-lapse films of flowers unfolding before your eyes, Linux assembled itself under Torvalds’ calm, watchful eye from a global stream of user contributions.

Geeks bearing gifts. Solving problems, adding features.

As a leaked confidential memo within Microsoft put it, open-source’s ability to “collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing.”

So why am I chuffed?

My column was based on a longer essay just published in the Australian magazine Policy. I’ve published more original and important articles but, without big marketing efforts they mostly gather dust in university libraries. Until now.

Within a week of being posted on the net, the article had gone ‘open-source’, being downloaded thousands of times from the Policy website. It was picked up at sparking an online discussion. My favourite comments? “Brilliant essay” and “Beautiful article” then again, it was a beautiful topic.

Then I got an e-mail from Brazil. The author said similarly nice things about the essay and requested permission to translate it into Portuguese for a Brazilian open-source IT website. 1. The fortune of my essay extolling the power of open-source was itself illustrating the power of open-source!

But wait, there’s more. For a while now, I’ve discussed themes from my columns on a group weblog you can find it by Googling “Troppo Armadillo”. I now send drafts of columns to some weblog readers before you read them. They suggest improvements and help iron out bugs just like Linux. Everyone wins including this newspaper which gets better columns!

And one thing leads to another. Right now I’m composing a column based on the idea I proposed in a column last month where I suggested that we increase the ‘default’ rate of super contributions while leaving people free to opt out of higher contributions. I’m asking Troppo visitors (like you if you want) to help me think of other areas where changing our ‘default’ settings could be beneficial. That’ll be a future column!

So the power is with them or maybe with you!

In the words of Microsoft: “simply amazing”. Or “simples surpreendente”, as they say in Brazil.

* Itself a condensation of this piece.

** This is slightly inaccurate but conveys the meaning simply as required in a column. As my essay on open source makes clear, one has no obligation to pass on one’s improvements. The requirement is that IF you pass them on, you must pass them on with access to the source code and with permission to the user to pass it on further under the same licence terms.

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2024 years ago

Of course the process of constructive feedback has always been vitally important to improve all kinds of performance. Mostly this is done in face to face contact with colleagues and co-workers but as times change it goes far beyond that and nowadays it is possible to tap a worldwide array of helpers.
This is really great for people with esoteric interests like someone who was in email contact with four or five people on different continents who shared an interest in some particular branch of Persian poetry or something like that. Without this link he would have pursued his passion in almost complete isolation.
Perhaps the archetype of open source communication media is language itself, that is to say, the languages of the world and all their variants, from the language of science with its specialised vocabulary to the dialects and patois of the village and street.

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago

Yes, absolutely. It’s a point that’s kind of drifted into my consciousness when I was thinking about metaphors for OSS, but I’ve not really stayed with it.

But it’s a great metaphor for OSS becuase not only is it accurate, but language is also elemental.

Because language is a code, it’s a shared standard, and it’s one on which all people are free to free ride on and also free to contribute to.

(Another one I thought of was coral – where each generation inherits some assets and then further builds upon them.)

John Morhall
John Morhall
2024 years ago

This sounds rather like one of the Mandelbrot derivatives where as one delves deeper within the matrix, the complexity of the structure continues to be revealed ad infinitum. Language would seem to become less standardised at its extremes as dialectal variations occur, so I think the coral analogy is a good one as the growth is at the extremeties of the colony and reflects the then current environment. It is interesting to consider whether the sub stratum of the language remains constant though, as clearly words and expressions pass in and out of currency. Clearly technology and the internet have been responsible for a considerable shift in learning and the availablity of information in the past two decades or so. I am always amused when I pass “Mrs Thompson’s Frock Shop”, or when hearing references to the “wireless”, terms which are of a bygone, albeit recent age.

2024 years ago

Another ‘Linux is great’ prophet.

Wait till you have to drop into a shell prompt
and start learning Unix style commands.

Yup, there’s nothing like downloading ‘Tar’
files to install new software.

Linux is powerful,not doubt,but for the masses
who can’t control MS software it’s not even

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago


That’s not what they say in the schools I have read about that have taken it up.

New Zealand is also being more adventurous on this score also.

Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
2024 years ago

Hey Fred,

Something to consider:

The first Windows release was in 1985. There have been countless millions of dollars poured into its development by a single commercial entity.

20 years down the track, I think it says something that its biggest competitor is a package which began being developed by a University student in 1991, and became usable entirely off the strength of volunteer contributions.

Sure, ease of use isn’t there yet, but all operating systems are pretty ugly once you get underneath the glitter of the GUI. In 5 years time, I think Linux will match or exceed Windows in most ways that matter.

2024 years ago

Having mentioned coral, you might as well go all the way and talk about the evolution of life forms, based on variations of the genetic code written in DNA! And the really scary thing is the way we have just got to the point of engineering DNA, which I think is a radically different matter from selective breeding.
Just for completeness you would have to throw in the evolution of ideas and theoretical systems a la evolutionary epistemology.

2024 years ago


OSS is a wonderful thing, I don’t disagree, however its promise I feel is a bit overstated.

For a time I ran Linux and Star office, the OSS equivalent to Microsoft office. It generally worked fine, but interoperability with Word is important for me and it could only produce RTF files as the intermediary. This just created a fiddle that I didn’t need. I also found that it crashed horribly on some occasions destroying many hours work. If I had the time available, and was a dedicated nerd I would have investigated, dug deeper, and resolved the problem. Although I had the skills, I had neither the time nor inclination to do this, so I abandoned it and reverted to Windows.

My view is that for organisations to run OSS successfully they need to make a greater investment is higly skilled people than is the norm. For some organisations this may suit them, but I think that most simply don’t need the hassle. They’ll pay Microsoft to keep life simple for them.

OSS will therefore have a place in those organisations that can properly manage their IT skillsets. Most can’t and so therefore, most will stick with commercial product.

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago


No doubt with Microsoft gumming up the standards this can continue for a good while. The solution is an access regime on Microsoft. It amazes me how slow we are to act on this.

2024 years ago

Access regime? What’s that?

Bob Waldie
2024 years ago

Gday Nicholas

I came across this blog from your “Geeks bearing gifts” article in yesterday’s courier mail, and I was really pleased to see the open source notion presented there in terms a “non geek” reader could understand.

You also touched on the notion of open source extending beyond its software origins, and this I see as the most exciting aspect of Linux’s success. The open source model started with Linux in operating system software, but it now has even greater impact in applications software, and is even making intrusions into computer hardware

However the real excitement will come when this new open model begins to find traction in publishing, music, entertainment, architecture, industrial design, education … and all other “intellectual properties”.

And I’d envisage it is the commercial imperative that will drive open source into these new fields. The open source model changes the business rules; it fosters innovation and new business thrives in these environments. It also rewards everyone with more useful, more reliable and lower cost “products” as you highlight.

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago


Access regimes were a central feature of the National Competition Policy (the Hilmer Reforms) which had the idea of trying to make utility industries more competitive. Thus where a utility controlled a ‘natural monopoly’ bit of infrastructure – a pipeline for instance – then others could get access to the infrastructure if necessary at arbitrated prices so that the natural monopoly elements could not be extended to parts of the market that were not natural monopolies.

Thus for instance if you find gas near the Cooper Basin you can apply for access to AGL’s Moomba to Sydney pipeline and it cannot refuse to negotiate.

Likewise those aspects of MS’s source code that are required to interoperate with MS programs that are dominant should be released. If MS won’t do that then it should be compelled to do so.

Word has become a standard and so MS should be required to release whatever source code it is necessary to release for it to function as an open standard – in the same kind of way that the Moomba to Sydney pipeline is an ‘open’ pipeline – any carrier can use it.

Note the Norwegian govt has just announced that “Proprietary formats will no longer be acceptable in communication between citizens and government.”

2024 years ago

I think Fred is a little out of touch.

Most modern Linux distro use RPMs or similar to install software. The average user shouldn’t need to go anywhere near the shell, just as most Windows users never need to open a DOS shell.

I use Linux for 98% of my home computing needs without a hitch.

It still has a way to go to be completely seamless, but it’s getting closer all the time.

18 years ago

[…] I wrote about this and the threat of a patent thicket in an essay I wrote on open source software and Microsoft is doing all it can to exploit the situation. I don’t say this unkindly to Microsoft. In helping themselves they are giving their clients a way through the patent thicket that many software producers say make software production rife with unmanageable uncertainty. […]