The Network Really Is the Computer
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Once the Internet's higher speed connections became widely available, the culture of cooperation was already firmly in place. 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.

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.

This power of wide area networking to connect widely separated individuals is key to the success of open source. It's what allows a program written, "to scratch your own itch", as Sendmail creator Eric Allman put it at the first open source summit, can easily find others with the same itch. No dollars need be spent on assembling a team, no dollars need to be spent on marketing. Just release the product for free, source included, and let other like-minded people with the same problem see if it gives them a leg up.

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 Collab.Net, 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. (In fact, the name "Apache" actually comes from this fact--the developers started out simply by agreeing to share their patches to the NCSA server, and so they called what they did "a patchy server".)

Apache gives us lessons about intentional wide-area collaborative software development that can be applied even by companies that 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, Collab.Net 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.

Because this is, after all, JavaOne, it's probably appropriate to mention in this context that Collab.Net and Sun are working together on the open source release of Sun's NetBeans project, which provides an extensible Java-based IDE. In fact, I'm going to let Brian Behlendorf, who is one of the founders of both the Apache project and Collab.Net, and Roman Stanek, the founder of NetBeans, give a brief demo of Collab.Net's work on NetBeans.

At this point Brian gives a demo of the site, pointing out that:
  • the site is separate from Sun, because it's important for anyone to feel they can participate
  • the site gives access to CVS source trees, bug reports, and mailing lists via the web
Roman points out that Sun chose to open source NetBeans because they want developers to have the freedom to extend it, and that they chose the Mozilla licensing model, with a license based on the MPL.

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.

In some ways, you can say that what the Internet is enabling is not just networking of computers, but networking of people, with all that implies. As the network becomes more ubiquitous, it becomes clearer and clearer that who it connects is as important as what it connects.

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Next Pagearrow