: Code 2.0

A Short History of Code on the Net

A Short History of Code on the Net

In the beginning, of course, there were very few applications on the Net. The Net was no more than a protocol for exchanging data, and the original programs simply took advantage of this protocol. The file transfer protocol (FTP) was born early in the Nets history[14]; the electronic message protocol (SMTP) was born soon after. It was not long before a protocol to display directories in a graphical way (Gopher) was developed. And in 1991 the most famous of protocols the hyper text transfer protocol (HTTP) and hyper text markup language (HTML) gave birth to the World Wide Web.

Each protocol spawned many applications. Since no one had a monopoly on the protocol, no one had a monopoly on its implementation. There were many FTP applications and many e-mail servers. There were even a large number of browsers[15]. The protocols were open standards, gaining their blessing from standards bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and, later, the W3C. Once a protocol was specified, programmers could build programs that utilized it.

Much of the software implementing these protocols was open, at least initially that is, the source code for the software was available along with the object code[16]. This openness was responsible for much of the early Nets growth. Others could explore how a program was implemented and learn from that example how better to implement the protocol in the future.

The World Wide Web is the best example of this point. Again, the code that makes a web page appear as it does is called the hyper text markup language, or HTML[17]. With HTML, you can specify how a web page will appear and to what it will be linked.

The original HTML was proposed in 1990 by the CERN researchers Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau[18]. It was designed to make it easy to link documents at a research facility, but it quickly became obvious that documents on any machine on the Internet could be linked. Berners-Lee and Cailliau made both HTML and its companion HTTP freely available for anyone to take.

And take them people did, at first slowly, but then at an extraordinary rate. People started building web pages and linking them to others. HTML became one of the fastest-growing computer languages in the history of computing.

Why? One important reason was that HTML was always open. Even today, on most browsers in distribution, you can always reveal the source of a web page and see what makes it tick. The source remains open: You can download it, copy it, and improve it as you wish. Copyright law may protect the source code of a web page, but in reality it protects it very imperfectly. HTML became as popular as it did primarily because it was so easy to copy. Anyone, at any time, could look under the hood of an HTML document and learn how the author produced it.

Openness not property or contract but free code and access created the boom that gave birth to the Internet that we now know. And it was this boom that then attracted the attention of commerce. With all this activity, commerce rightly reasoned, surely there was money to be made.

Historically the commercial model for producing software has been different[19]. Though the history began even as the open code movement continued, commercial software vendors were not about to produce free (what most call open source) software. Commercial vendors produced software that was closed that traveled without its source and was protected against modification both by the law and by its own code.

By the second half of the 1990s marked most famously by Microsofts Windows 95, which came bundled Internet-savvy commercial software vendors began producing application space code. This code was increasingly connected to the Net it increasingly became code on the Internet. But for the most part, the code remained closed.

That began to change, however, around the turn of the century. Especially in the context of peer-to-peer services, technologies emerged that were dominant and open. More importantly, the protocols these technologies depended upon were unregulated. Thus, for example, the protocol that the peer-to-peer client Grokster used to share content on the Internet is itself an open standard that anyone can use. Many commercial entities tried to use that standard, at least until the Supreme Courts decision in Grokster. But even if that decision inspires every commercial entity to abandon the StreamCast network, noncommercial implementations of the protocol will still exist.

The same mix between open and closed exists in both browsers and blogging software. Firefox is the more popular current implementation of the Mozilla technology the technology that originally drove the Netscape browser. It competes with Microsofts Internet Explorer and a handful of other commercial browsers. Likewise, WordPress is an open-source blogging tool that competes with a handful of other proprietary blogging tools.

This recent growth in open code builds upon a long tradition. Part of the motivation for that tradition is ideological, or values based. Richard Stallman is the inspiration here. In 1984, Stallman began the Free Software Foundation with the aim of fueling the growth of free software. A MacArthur Fellow who gave up his career to commit himself to the cause, Stallman has devoted the last twenty years of his life to free software. That work began with the GNU project, which sought to develop a free operating system. By 1991, the GNU project had just about everything it needed, except a kernel. That final challenge was taken up by an undergraduate at the University of Helsinki. That year, Linus Torvalds posted on the Internet the kernel of an operating system. Heinvited the world to extend and experiment with it.

People took up the challenge, and slowly, through the early 1990s, marrying the GNU project with Torvalds kernel, they built an operating system GNU/Linux. By 1998, it had become apparent to all that GNU/Linux was going to be an important competitor to the Microsoft operating system. Microsoft may have imagined in 1995 that by 2000 there would be no other server operating system available except Windows NT, but when 2000 came around, there was GNU/Linux, presenting a serious threat to Microsoft in the server market. Now in 2007, Linux-based web servers continue to gain market share at the expense of Microsoft systems.

GNU/Linux is amazing in many ways. It is amazing first because it is theoretically imperfect but practically superior. Linus Torvalds rejected what computer science told him was the ideal operating system design[20], and instead built an operating system that was designed for a single processor (an Intel 386) and not cross-platform-compatible. Its creative development, and the energy it inspired, slowly turned GNU/Linux into an extraordinarily powerful system. As of this writing, GNU/Linux has been ported to at least eighteen different computer architecture platforms from the original Intel processors, to Apples PowerPC chip, to Sun SPARC chips, and mobile devices using ARM processors.[21] Creative hackers have even ported Linux to squeeze onto Apples iPod and old Atari systems. Although initially designed to speak only one language, GNU/Linux has become the lingua franca of free software operating systems.

What makes a system open is a commitment among its developers to keep its core code public to keep the hood of the car unlocked. That commitment is not just a wish; Stallman encoded it in a license that sets the terms that control the future use of most free software. This is the Free Software Foundations General Public License (GPL), which requires that any code licensed with GPL (as GNU/Linux is) keep its source free. GNU/Linux was developed by an extraordinary collection of hackers worldwide only because its code was open for others to work on.

Its code, in other words, sits in the commons[22]. Anyone can take it and use it as she wishes. Anyone can take it and come to understand how it works. The code of GNU/Linux is like a research program whose results are always published for others to see. Everything is public; anyone, without having to seek the permission of anyone else, may join the project.

This project has been wildly more successful than anyone ever imagined. In 1992, most would have said that it was impossible to build a free operating system from volunteers around the world. In 2002, no one could doubt it anymore. But if the impossible could become possible, then no doubt it could become impossible again. And certain trends in computing technology may create precisely this threat.

For example, consider the way Active Server Pages (ASP) code works on the network. When you go to an ASP page on the Internet, the server runs a program a script to give you access to a database, for example, or a program to generate new data you need. ASPs are increasingly popular ways to provide program functionality. You use it all the time when you are on the Internet.

But the code that runs ASPs is not technically distributed. Thus, even if the code is produced using GPLd code, theres no GPL obligation to release it to anyone. Therefore, as more and more of the infrastructure of networked life becomes governed by ASP, less and less will be effectively set free by free license.

Trusted Computing creates another threat to the open code ecology. Launched as a response to virus and security threats within a networked environment, the key technical feature of trusted computing is that the platform blocks programs that are not cryptographically signed or verified by the platform. For example, if you want to run a program on your computer, your computer would first verify that the program is certified by one of the authorities recognized by the computer operating system, and incorporating hardware and software . . . security standards approved by the content providers themselves.[23] If it isnt, the program wouldnt run.

In principle, of course, if the cost of certifying a program were tiny, this limitation might be unproblematic. But the fear is that this restriction will operate to effectively block open code projects. It is not easy for a certifying authority to actually know what a program does; that means certifying authorities wont be keen to certify programs they cant trust. And that in turn will effect a significant discrimination against open code.


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