Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Open Source (aka there's more to the internet than p0rn)

O'Brien: Mozilla's open-source model represents valley at its best - San Jose Mercury News: "For now, let's just be grateful to have Firefox 3.0 and the community that built it."

As I write, downloads of Firefox 3.0 have reached 6,124,310 since 18:16 UTC yesterday. It makes me happy :-) and I'll tell you why.

Now, I've loved the internet since I first encountered it in 1994. I spent my first year in university connected to a high-speed campus network, spending nights in chatrooms and meeting people around the world. I even operated a "pen pal" service in my dorm, matching 18 year old Canadian university students with Scottish grad students at the University of Edinburgh. I found a bulletin board for their university using Gopher.

I eventually met one of the Scottish students when I lived in England. Although we'd both changed and were no longer able to be friends, it felt incredible to know that we'd been such a presence in each others lives, having never met in person (although we did talk on the phone when my budget allowed). We'd even post each other books. That experience taught me early on that the internet was at its most powerful when connecting people.

I'm getting a bit weepy now. It's ok, I'll get over it. :-)

What does this have to do with Firefox? Granted, it sounds like I'm going to rhapsodise about Facebook.

I'm not.

While my earliest experiences taught me that the internet could connect people, what I have only just learned is that the internet can connect people and they can use those connections to make things happen.


Think about it. On my laptop, I run Ubuntu as an operating system. It does everything my computer with Windows does. Only, people built Ubuntu because they wanted to. And they distribute it for free. And not free like some free software that only gives a company the ability to plant spyware and adware into your computer, but FREE. It's not costing you anything and they're not looking for anything in return (unless you want to help out!). It's also FREE as in "free speech". The source code is available. Anybody can look at it. Anybody can modify and make it suit their needs. Hardware companies can see the source code for themselves and provide drivers that work properly, instead of the guesswork involved with the OS source code is not available for viewing.

You've heard of Linux, right?

Basically, in 1991, this guy posted on newsgroup that he was setting up his own operating system, as a hobby. He was looking for feedback and suggestions. He never made it proprietary. He never claimed any kind of monetary rights to his OS. He never sought to sell it off to a company, he just allowed it to be used by the community and it became the root of the operating systems we call "Linux" (Distrowatch list 349). People just kept building stuff the way they wanted to use it. And they still do.

Wikipedia is an example of the same phenomenon in action. They claim 75,000 active contributors. While there are always warnings about the potentially unreliable information to be found on pages that can be freely edited, Wikipedia has proven to be one of the most reliable and current sources of information for those doing research, especially in the preliminary stages. I'd be hard pressed to find a reason to own a set of encyclopedias today.

Firefox, is of course, part of the same community developed phenomenon. The Mozilla Developer Center informs potential developers how to obtain the source code, write patches, and submit them for review and inclusion.

When you look at these (and so many other projects) it seems completely insane to continue supporting the proprietary software that keeps us bound to brands and restricted in our productivity(and charge us for it!). Recently the company I work for have started using Open Source projects, like Open Office. I also noticed our LCD display runs on a linux box when I unplugged it by mistake the other day and saw the startup script.

Perhaps there is hope for the old internet yet, beyond Bebo and porn.

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