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.
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.
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 osnews.com 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. [Its not been posted yet]. 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.