How would you like it if hundreds of highly-skilled, qualified people from around the world volunteered their time to work on one of your products, invested thousands of hours in quality control, continuously suggested and made improvements for you -- and did it all for free? Nix, nada, nothing? If you could somehow emulate a phenomenon called "open source software", then that is precisely what you would get.
Open source software (OSS) is software whose source code is openly distributed, usually via the Internet, so that people can extend it, customise it, and pool their improvements. It is one of the most fascinating developments in recent years. Under its previous name freeware, it was largely despised by the corporate world. (How can anything free be worth much?) But open source software received a big boost in the last year when Corel and NetScape embraced it for their respective businesses. When IBM gave it the nod for one of its product lines this June, open source software had really arrived.
The most famous instance of OSS is Linux, a version of the Unix operating system. The production studio that did the special effects in the movie "Titanic" used Linux on Digital Alpha and Silicon Graphics computers. Most of the print servers at networking giant Cisco's San Jose headquarters run Linux.
Linux is also used at NASA and Boeing.
There are many other robust OSS products, and chances are your company already uses some of them. Much of the infrastructure of the Internet is freeware, for instance. About half the Web sites in the world use something called the Apache Web server as their HTTP server, a critical component of Web applications. It was Apache software that IBM selected in June to bundle with its WebSphere line, which I understand is to become part of IBM's Net.Commerce e-business offerings later this year. Moreover, IBM promised to share any of its improvements to the Apache source code with the rest of the world.
Some people are claiming that the OSS "model" of software development poses a threat to Microsoft and its dominance of the software industry, but this is premature. Still, there undoubtedly are lessons that all software developers can learn from OSS or freeware.
Leaders in the field, such as Linux originator Linus Torvalds, have pioneered a style that calls for products to be released early and often. One big advantage is that the software in question undergoes massive, independent review and testing so that any bugs are quickly identified and killed. The uncovering of bugs and errors thus becomes a normal part of development. Or, in the words of one developer, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow".
But to me, what makes OSS significant is the glimpse it offers of a radically different, apparently very successful, way of working. It's an anti-hierarchical model, an approach that relies on people desiring to work with you, it means enlisting the enthusiastic help of users/customers. Above all, it's an example of virtual teams cooperating on a grand scale.
In some ways, I suppose it is similar to the way that science operates.
Science, too, is a worldwide enterprise, where people are working with many others they have never seen, where there are continual enhancements, and where there is no fixed end-point (no release date) where you can say, "Now it is complete". And we all know how wildly successful science is.
Eric Raymond has compared the whole OSS approach to a great, babbling bazaar where, out of a melange of differing agendas and approaches, a coherent and exceedingly stable system emerges, as if by a miracle. He contrasts this with what he terms the "cathedral" approach -- that is, the usual mode of commercial software development, with centrally planned groups working quietly in splendid isolation until they have completed a finished product by a designated end date.
The cathedral and the bazaar. The old approach and a very intriguing new one.
Wouldn't it be fantastic if you could involve your customers with you in voluntarily and continuously developing your products in such a worldwide bazaar? Steve Ireland is publisher of ComputerWorld newspaper
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