The Generation Gap

An examination of the issues involved with the use of open-source software components in closed-source applications.
Generations of the Internet

The Internet has gone from being tiny to small to huge to gigantic. The use of open-source software has gone from being tiny to small to huge. The parallels between open source and the Internet are particularly interesting, because the cultures overlap—the infrastructure of the Internet was developed by and is maintained by hackers.

The Internet and its culture can be viewed as having passed through four generations:

  1. The U.S. Defense Department connects the ARPA-net with other defense networks to support military research. This proves to be a great way for researchers to communicate and share information. Demand for networking grows, but access is limited to a small community of computer science researchers, government employees and government contractors. A culture based on sharing is established.

  2. The National Science Foundation commissions the NSF-NET to connect colleges with five supercomputer centers. The NSF pays for campus connections if access will be generally available to students. Anyone at a four-year college can get on the network. Everything still revolves around sharing; commercial use is forbidden by the people providing the funding.

  3. Demand for networking increases, and commercial Internet Service Providers appear. Commercial use of the Internet is still frowned upon (and sometimes flamed upon), but for people and businesses paying for their own access, there is no one to forbid it. The emphasis shifts from sharing to using—surfing, chatting, e-mailing, browsing, finding cool stuff and being entertained. Commercial use increases. The idea of a business having a web site goes from being flaky to being obvious. The original culture, with its strict mores enforcing an ethic of sharing, is apparently losing its dominance.

  4. Millions and millions of people are on the Internet. You can do just about anything you want. Strict mores have given way to true freedom. It's changing the world. More people are sharing on the Internet than ever before. It's the hacker spirit on a gigantic scale.

Conclusion—Closed Source as Users of Open Source

Linux began as an operating system used primarily by programmers. Now it is used by all kinds of people, and the proportion of Linux users who are programmers is steadily decreasing. Most of these non-programmers know very little about the traditions of the hacker culture. Many of them use Linux simply to make money, and it's just about the best thing that could have happened to the Open Source movement.

Open-source software isn't going to replace closed-source software any time soon. People write closed-source applications because they believe they can make money renting them, and they will continue to believe this. Companies write software for their own use, and want to guard their trade secrets.

Closed-source development is a wonderful market for open-source components. The more companies use open-source components, the more they will contribute to open-source development.

It's great that programmers can create something like Linux in their spare time, but they also spend a lot of time at their paying jobs. Component development may be where the Open Source movement invades company time.



Brian has been a software developer in Calgary's oil and gas industry since 1981. He is deeply into C++ and object-oriented design. His career began vowing never to learn Cobol; it progressed to never learning VB and now involves never learning MFC. Brian first got into UNIX in 1991 but he has only been using Linux for about six months. Brian Marshall can be reached via e-mail at