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June 12, 2001

A public radio commentary

Last night I saw the movie Shrek. Although its green ogre didn't scare me, it likely has Microsoft worried. The software used to make Shrek's computer generated ogre represents a triumph for the greatest threat to Microsoft's empire.

Dreamworks, the studio that produced Shrek used something called Linux, a type of Open Source software, to run their computers. You'd think this would be very expensive, cutting edge software, but Linux is available for free. I, like millions of others, use this free program to run my home computer instead of Microsoft's Windows. What makes Linux unique is this: It was created not by a giant corporation, but by thousands of volunteers around the globe linked via the internet. They are part of an informal revolution called the Open Source movement.

By open source I mean that their computer code is available to anyone to modify as they wish. This is a stark contrast to Microsoft that keeps it Windows program under tight wraps: Only Microsoft employees know how it does its magic. How could this possibly matter to you?

I know its unlikely you'll rewrite your computer's operating system anytime soon, but there are thousands, even millions, of programmers who will work on the code. They are hyper-picky people who enjoy finding errors and fixing them. The result to the user of Open Source software - and the main reason I use it - is that it is incredibly robust; it rarely crashes.

Microsoft would love to take over something like Linux and shelve its development, but because its open source they can't follow their usual strategy of buying up a competitor: There isn't any company to buy, because Open Source software is the product of individual programmers all over the world.

But what really terrifies Microsoft is the license used on all Open Source software. It says that anyone can use the code, but - and this is the twist that scares Microsoft - if you do you must release your entire source code, and allow anyone to use it and distribute it. No wonder a Microsoft Vice-president likens this license to a virus.

So, will Linux and the Open Source movement be the David that eventually slays the Microsoft Goliath? It's unlikely it'll dislodge Microsoft any time soon from your home computer, but I'll tell you where to watch the battle: On the internet. Since 1995 the number of computers that route web traffic and e-mail around the world has grown from twenty-five thousand to six billion. Microsoft would love to dominate this market - yet over 60% of these web servers run an Open Source Program called Apache, compared to only 20% that use Microsoft software. And the Open Source program is increasing its share every year.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises