The Politics of Software

The Politics of Software

The Case of Open Source

As the United States v. Microsoft antitrust case drew to a close last year, the tone of Judge Thomas P. Jackson’s findings of fact left little doubt in most observers’ minds that the software corporation would be found guilty as charged. The most recent court ruling (June 2001) seems to indicate that the new Republican administration will let the giant corporation off the hook. But Microsoft still faces another challenge to its monopoly, a challenge that may prove more difficult to tackle than the American courts. An internal memorandum written by a Microsoft employee defined the new threat and was leaked via the Internet as the case was reaching its climax. A movement of hackers is attempting to create a new paradigm of software production: collectively created programs in which consumers are also (to different degrees) producers.

This hacker movement, known variously as “Free Software” or “Open Source,” burst into public consciousness a few years ago as a result of its success in the production of reliable and robust software. Some of its products (the server software called Apache) have already acquired a larger market share than Microsoft’s, and the share of some others (the operating system known as Linux) is growing at a faster rate than the corporation’s product. In either case, the success of the movement has gone beyond the expectations of most analysts and has taken most corporate managers by surprise; many of them (at corporations like IBM and SUN) are switching from proprietary to “open” systems.

Although Open Source software is typically free, or sold at relatively low prices, its impact is only indirectly related to monetary questions; it is more intimately linked to the kind of software it makes available. Rather than producing end-user application software (word processors, browsers, spreadsheets, and so on) the members of this movement, who number in the hundreds if not thousands, have concentrated their efforts on the very tools needed to create those applications—what we may refer to without much exaggeration as the means of production of the “information economy” (compilers, debuggers, program text-editors, and so on). In addition, they have created several operating systems, that is, the software platforms on top of which both applications and the tools to produce them run. The crucial importance of the operating system may be grasped from the fact that the Justice Department investigated Microsoft not so much because of its large size or dominant market share, but because it produces both an operating system (Windows) and a series of applications. Controlling both the platform on which programs run as well as what runs on top of this platform gives Microsoft an unfair advantage over competitors. It may, if it wants, delay the release of technical details on a new operating system, forcing its rivals to wait to rewrite applications while Microsoft takes as much time as it wan...