Tuesday, June 20, 2006

What’s the fuss over FOSS?

IN an industry where acronyms are de rigueur, it seemed inevitable that an old computing concept would get a new name.

Last November at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (which goes by its own unwieldy acronym WSIS), FOSS was on everyone’s lips as a way of bridging the divide between technology haves and have-nots.

FOSS stands for “free or open source software,” and it’s increasingly seen as the answer to everything from piracy to the lack of computing resources in Third World countries.

Free software that just anyone can copy or download over the Internet? What a crazy concept! Would businesses want to use software that nobody sold or supported?

The surprising answer is, many of them already do—without knowing it.

Indirectly, anyone who sends e-mail or browses the Web is using free and open source software because that is what powers most of the Internet.

In June 2006, more than six of 10 Web sites were on servers using Apache HTTP Server, an open source program running on Linux, which is also open source. That means if a company has a Web site, chances are good that it’s hosted on an open source system.

Anyone using Firefox (186 million downloads as of this month) to surf the Internet is also using open source software.

Despite these success stories, few people understand why or how free software works.

The concept of free software isn’t all that new. In fact, before software became a commodity, Unix hackers in universities would routinely share their source code—human-readable instructions—with each other, copying and adapting them freely. Programmers expected to be paid for their work, not for the programs themselves.

Out of this environment came Richard Stallman, a programmer at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stallman valued this collegial approach and argued that software users should have the freedom to share programs with others and be able to study and make changes to the software that they used. Restricting these freedoms, he believed, would hurt the larger community by limiting the benefits that the software could bring.

Dissatisfied by the limits that companies were putting on software, including Unix, he set out in 1983 to create a free operating system that he called GNU—a recursive acronym for Gnu’s Not Unix— and invited other programmers to help. In 1985, he created the Free Software Foundation to support the development of free software.

Out of these efforts came a complete set of programming tools but the core of the operating system—called the kernel—proved difficult to complete.

Into this gap stepped Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki. In 1991, Torvalds released a kernel that used libraries and tools developed by the GNU project and released it on the Internet, inviting feedback and help from other programmers. Remarkably, developers from all over the world responded and helped Torvalds create and refine his free operating system.

Today, Linux and other free or open source programs have made significant inroads in a world accustomed to proprietary software.

“The Codebreakers,” a BBC documentary in May 2006, shows how different countries have used FOSS to narrow the digital divide. These include school projects in Namibia, Spain and India, computer kiosks in South Africa, a disaster management system in Sri Lanka, and an environmental database system for the Galapagos.

One of the most high-profile efforts, however, is Brazil’s program to support the use and development of free and open source software in its government offices. The move saves Brazil $150 million a year in software licensing costs, which means more money to buy computer hardware for technologically deprived areas.

Nobody expects FOSS to replace proprietary software soon, but given the substantial savings and benefits it would bring, shouldn’t the Philippine government take a closer look?

Column archives and blog at: http://www.chinwong.com



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