Freeware? What's Not To Like?

Not much. Open-source programs may spur more choice and competition

Ask a software company what it regards as its most valuable asset and the answer will probably be "our source code." The reason is simple: With these instructions, written in a programming language such as C++, a software engineer can clone the program, and copyright laws offer minimal protection.

So why are some leading companies, including Sun, Netscape, IBM, and 3Com creating "freeware" by giving away critical source code? And what does the open-source movement mean for us nonprogrammers?

To answer the last question first: A quiet revolution sweeping the software industry could in time give us better programs, largely through more competition and choice. The force driving the change, as it is in so many areas of technology, is the Internet. From the beginning, the Net has been based on standards and software that were open and freely available to all comers. Even now that Net traffic is overwhelmingly commercial, such programs are responsible for moving nearly all E-mail and for the directory system that lets computers find each other.

Software companies are getting interested in open source for varying reasons. For some, it's an experiment or a way to be in position if the open-source movement takes off. For 3Com Palm Computing, it's a way to get others to write software for its Palm handheld. Sun Microsystems Inc. is responding to pressure to loosen its control over its Java language, which is supposed to allow programs to run on different types of computers.

The open-source movement was given a huge boost by the success of the Linux operating system, a variant of Unix that runs on the same inexpensive PCs as Windows. Linux was written in the early 1990s by Linus Torvalds, then an undergraduate at the University of Helsinki, and is maintained and updated by a loose army of programmers.

Linux makes the strongest case for the somewhat improbable claim that the army of volunteers that updates and maintains it can produce better software than Microsoft's well-paid minions. On the down side, Linux has a mind-numbing installation procedure--it took me hours of work to get a system running--and few off-the-shelf applications. But companies that have tried it in a variety of server chores, such as running Web sites or acting as an E-mail post office, have found it far less crash-prone than Microsoft's $1,000-a-copy Windows NT. When bugs do turn up, fixes are quickly posted to the Internet, sometimes within hours, and software support for new hardware often appears within days, vs. months for NT.

Recently, a number of major companies have made significant commitments to Linux. Intel Corp. has taken an equity stake in Red Hat Software, which distributes and supports Linux. Corel offers Word Perfect Office for Linux, and IBM and Oracle say they will make database software available for Linux.

The enthusiasm is definitely not shared by Microsoft. In an internal document that leaked out at the end of October, Microsoft engineer Vinod Valloppillil argued that Linux and other open-source programs are a threat to Windows. The company, he said, should "deny [open-source] projects entry to the market" by altering Internet standards to favor Windows.

Valloppillil's memo, which has become known as the Halloween Document (available at halloween.html), argues that because open-source programs are written by engineers for engineers, they "will never provide the ease-of-use requirements of the average desktop user." That may be about to change.

FREE MONEY? In early 1998, Netscape Communications Corp. turned the source code of its Navigator browser over to an organization called and invited developers to improve it. The results will be incorporated into Communicator 5.0, scheduled for release in mid-1999. has already developed a version of Navigator that can run on just about any platform, including set-top boxes and handhelds.

For open source to become a major force in consumer software, companies will have to find a way to make a business out of giving products away. One way is to charge for service and support for free software. Another is by packaging and selling open-source products under a trusted brand name. A third is by selling enhanced versions of open-source products.

These models may not appeal to companies used to Microsoft's gross margins, but they could be very attractive for consumers. Open source has quickly gone from campus curiosity to the object of intense corporate interest. It remains to be seen how much this will change the software industry. But if it puts better software on our desktops, I'm all for it.