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Geeks bearing gifts

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Tuesday, 9 August 2005


Did you read my article (On Line Opinion) 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.

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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 1s and 0s 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 university. Now, how often have you run across a bug or wanted a feature to work differently? Even if you had a PhD in programming you couldn’t change it.

Why? Because Bill Gates keeps the source-code 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.

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Torvalds released Linux under a special “open-source” copyright licence developed six years before what 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.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on July 19, 2005.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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