Open Source: The Model for Collaboration in the Age of the Internet

by Tim O'Reilly

This is the keynote presented by Tim O'Reilly at Computers, Freedom and Privacy, Toronto, Canada, April 6, 2000

  • I'm going to talk about the rich environment of the Internet, why open source is central to that environment, and why we need to protect it.

Open Source is About Collaboration, Not Just about Software Licensing

  • There are a number of myths about open source:
    • Linux is the first great open source success story.
    • Open source is primarily about software licensing.
    • Open source is about giving software away for free and allowing others to redistribute it.
  • These are important factors, but more importantly, OSS is about collaboration. Linux is a tremendous achievement, but the Internet and the WWW are the greatest OSS success stories to date.
  • Much of the role of open source in the development of the Internet is well known: The most widely used TCP/IP protocol implementation was developed as part of Berkeley networking; Bind runs the DNS, without which none of the web sites we depend on would be reachable; sendmail is the heart of the Internet e-mail backbone; Apache is the dominant web server; Perl the dominant language for creating dynamic sites, etc. etc.
  • Less often considered is the role of Usenet in mothering the Net we now know. Much of what drove public adoption of the Internet was in fact Usenet, that vast distributed bulletin board. You "signed up" for Usenet by finding a neighbor willing to give you a newsfeed. This was a true collaborative network, where mail and news were relayed from one cooperating site to another, often taking days to travel from one end of the net to another. Hub sites formed an ad-hoc backbone, but everything was voluntary.

    Rick Adams, who created Uunet, which was the first major commercial ISP, was the author of B News and the hostmaster of the world's largest Usenet hub. He realized that the voluntary Usenet was becoming unworkable, and that people would pay for reliable, well-connected access. UUnet started out as a nonprofit, and for several years, much more of its business was UUCP than TCP/IP. As the Internet caught on, UUNet and others liked it helped bring the Internet to the masses. But at the end of the day, the commercial Internet industry started out of a need to provide infrastructure for the completely collaborative UUCPnet and Usenet.

  • The UUCPnet and Usenet were used for e-mail (the first killer app), but also for software distribution and collaborative tech support. The mechanisms that the early developers used to spread and support their work became the basis for a cultural phenomenon that reached far beyond the tech sector. The heart of that phenomenon was the use of wide-area networking technology to connect people around interests, rather than through geographical location or company affiliation. This was the beginning of a massive cultural shift that we're still seeing today.
  • The Web was the next killer app. Tim's original web implementation was not just open source, it was public domain. NCSA's web server and Mosaic browser were not technically open source, but source was freely available. While the move of the NCSA team to Netscape moved key parts of the web infrastructure to the proprietary side, and the MS-NS battles made it appear that the Internet was primarily a proprietary creation, we all know better. Apache, the phoenix that grew from the NCSA server, has kept the open vision alive, keeping the standards honest, and not succumbing to proprietary embrace and extend strategies. Once Netscape was on the ropes, they returned to open standards with Mozilla.
  • But even more significantly, the "View Source" menu item migrated from Tim's original browser, to Mosaic, and then on to Netscape Navigator and MSIE. Though no one thinks of HTML as an open source technology (because of the fixation on licensing), it's been absolutely key to the explosive spread of the Web. Barriers to entry for "amateurs" were low, because anyone could look "over the shoulder" of anyone else producing a web page. Dynamic content created with interpreted languages continued the trend toward transparency.
  • A final note: While the open source community doesn't generally claim the IETF as its own, the Internet standards process has a great many similarities with an open source software project. The only substantial difference is that the IETF's output is a standards document rather than a code module. Anyone can participate, simply by joining a mailing list and having something to say, or by showing up to one of the three annual face-to-face meetings. Standards are decided on by participating individuals, irrespective of their company affiliations. (Though commercial participation is welcomed and encouraged, companies, like individuals, need to compete on the basis of their ideas and implementations, not their money or disproportional representation.) The IETF is where open source and open standards meet.
  • I'd like to argue that open source is the "natural language" of a networked community, that the growth of the Internet and the growth of open source are interconnected by more than happenstance. As individuals found ways to communicate through highly leveraged network channels, they were able to share information at a new pace and a new level. Just as the spread of literacy in the late middle ages disenfranchised old power structures and led to the flowering of the renaissance, it's been the ability of individuals to share knowledge outside the normal channels that has led to our current explosion of innovation. Just as ease of travel helped new ideas to spread, wide area networking has allowed ideas to spread and take root in new ways. Open source is ultimately about communication.
  • This is one reason behind one of O'Reilly's new open source ventures, the company , which we founded with Brian Behlendorf of the Apache project. Unlike many other OSS projects, Apache wasn't founded by a single visionary developer but by a group of users who'd been abandoned by their original "vendor" (NCSA) and who agreed to work together to maintain a tool they depended on. Apache gives us lessons about intentional wide-area collaborative software development that can be applied even by companies who haven't fully embraced open source licensing practices. For example, it is possible to apply open source collaborative principles inside a large company, even without the intention to release the resulting software to the outside world. More importantly, though, is teaching companies that it's not enough to slap an open source license on a piece of software; you need to build community and collaborative development processes around it as well.
  • A side note: I like to say that software enables speech between humans and computers. It is also the best way to talk about certain aspects of computer science, just as equations are the best ways to talk about problems in physics. If you follow this line of reasoning, you realize that many of the arguments for free speech apply to open source as well. How else do you tell someone how to talk with their computer other than by sharing the code you used to do so? The benefits of open source are analogous to the benefits brought by the free flow of ideas through other forms of conversation. In the end, the conversation is more important than the actual words we use to talk to each other.
  • In an exciting new development, most of you probably know by now that an appeals court agreed with this interpretation of software as speech in its recent decision in the Junger case. The treatment of software as speech is going to have enormous implications for areas such as software patents as well as for cryptography.
  • If you believe me that open source is about Internet-enabled collaboration, rather than just about a particular style of software license, you'll open a much larger tent. You'll see the threads that tie together not just traditional open source projects, but also collaborative "computing grid" projects like SETIAtHome, user reviews on, technologies like collaborative filtering, new ideas about marketing such as those expressed in The Cluetrain Manifesto, weblogs, and the way that Internet message boards can now move the stock market. What started out as a software development methodology is increasingly becoming a facet of every field, as network enabled conversations become a principal carrier of new ideas.

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