On Trust and Open Source

By Scot Petersen  |  Posted 2001-03-26

When we speak of the open-source culture/movement/business (or threat, if you are Microsoft), many of us may not be aware of its roots. Open source is a relatively new, updated term for the principles around which early hackers created programs for the first computers. Today, what we mean by open source is essentially shared application code, which can be altered and shared by whoever possesses the skills to manipulate it. But this process is governed by a license, and in the case of Linux, the core of it is controlled by one person, Linus Torvalds.

A very interesting view of how far weve come is found in a new edition of Steven Levys seminal work "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution." In it, Levy describes a computing utopia that is in sharp contrast to todays open-source "industry"—not to mention the proprietary and bureaucratic establishment of todays for-profit software business.

Levys hackers believed in an open community. One of the first time-sharing systems they built didnt even have any availability features or security safeguards. Levy writes, "The idea was to take all the fun away from crashing the system by making it trivial to do that. ... [B]y and large ITS [Incompatible Time-sharing System] proved that the best security was no security at all."

Such a method was its downfall, too. But this was indeed an environment in which the only thing that mattered was writing great programs.

Of course, such an open exchange of information would be unthinkable today, and none of this would work in an era where uptime and security are the No. 1 and 2 priorities of most system administrators.

It also has been accepted as gospel that commercial software ventures are the only way to ensure a quality product. Yet in the early days, and again today, its been shown that this is just not true. We should continue to think about how we can return to the days of such utopias—with proper reliability and security safeguards in place, of course.

Rocket Fuel