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Open Source Software

May 17, 2005

A public radio commentary

For years Microsoft's Internet Explorer has dominated the web browser market - by some estimates capturing almost 100 percent. But their share has dropped to 89% and continues to decline. An upstart browser called Firefox recently clocked its 50 millionth download. More is at stake, though, then a surfing the web.

The Firefox browser represents a new way to write software: No giant corporation, just 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, for example, that keeps it Windows operating system under tight wraps: Only Microsoft employees know how it does its magic.

It would seem that this new model doesn't build strong software, but there are thousands 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 - and the main reason I use Open Source software - is that it's incredibly robust - it rarely crashes. In fact, it's the backbone of my computer network.

Microsoft would love to stop this development, but it can't follow its 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 this type of 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 the Open Source movement be the David that eventually slays the Microsoft Goliath? It's unlikely it'll dislodge Windows 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 70% 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 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises