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Open-source software now a big tech player

It powers more than 70 per cent of all web servers and routes much of the world's e-mail traffic. It makes surfing the Internet simple and provides the muscle behind Google Inc.'s search engine and countless e-commerce sites.
Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Calif.

It's open-source software, a wide spectrum of programs developed not under the lock and key of a single company but by the communal efforts of volunteers who often start with little more than common interests and e-mail discussion groups.

Now, the software once branded the byproduct of dreamers, academics and hobbyists is the foundation of the Internet economy. It's forcing established companies to rethink their business models. And it's giving Microsoft Corp. and other entrenched entities a run for their money.

The best known open-source software, the Linux operating system, has grabbed a chunk of the server business once held by the Unix operating system, a field dominated by vendors like Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. Now Linux is now emerging as a desktop contender.

Another open-source operating system, FreeBSD, is a basic building block of Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS X.

Even less visible projects are making an impact. The Apache project created the world's leading Web server, the software that relays content to Web browsers. Sendmail invented e-mail standards and remains a contender today. Even the basic task of translating a Web address from common words into numbers is predominantly handled by an open-source undertaking, the Berkeley Internet Name Domain project, or BIND.

All share a simple philosophy: Grant a free license to users, include the software blueprints and let anyone make improvements with as few restrictions as possible. Sometimes, depending on the license, improvements must be made freely available.

"Our belief was if you give this really generous licence, it builds the biggest audience possible," said Brian Behlendorf, a founder of Apache. "And if you do that, you inherently build the largest pool of people interested in contributing back.

"Call it idealism," he said. "It's certainly very idealistic, but it works."

Like Linux and thousands of other projects, Apache has roots in academia. It emerged in 1995, partly from fear that a single company might control both Web servers and browsers.

That company wasn't Microsoft but Netscape Communications Corp. It had hired away the leading developers at the University of Illinois' National Centre for Supercomputing Applications, which had created an early browser, Mosaic, and Web server, HTTPd.

But the Illinois centre also had given away the server's source code with just one condition: that any redistributions give it credit.

Eight early webmasters, including Mr. Behlendorf, started an e-mail discussion group and started sharing their software patches. The group eventually decided to name their project "Apache" after the last Native American tribe to surrender in the United States.

"Somebody else said it makes for a good pun because we're combining all of our patches together so it's a 'patchy' server," said Mr. Behlendorf, who like the others is working for other companies that are building on Apache.

In part because of its low cost, companies saw little reason to build competing server software. Some, like IBM, chose to build additional proprietary software on top of it to run Web-based applications. Others, like Apple, simply include the Apache product with their software.

By 1999, Apache's success forced the developers to form the nonprofit Apache Software Foundation, which today supports about 20 projects that add more functions to the core server software.

"We still don't have any full-time staff, but we do have a legal structure that allows us to answer any of the questions that a company might have," Mr. Behlendorf said.

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