March 11, 1999|
Open source says phooey to Mr. Bill
by Greg Costikyan
If you're at all interested in software development, you're probably
aware of the open-source software
(OSS) movement. But in case you aren't, I'll recap.
Open-source software is free. It's not only free to download and use,
the source code is freely available. That means you can extend it and fix,
use, and modify it however you want. That's extremely powerful for anyone
running, say, an internet site; if you use the Apache server, one of OSS's
success stories, you aren't reliant on bug fixes from Microsoft or some
idiot on the other end of a support line to help you. You've got the code,
and you've got access, via email and listservs, to thousands of other
Apache sysadmins and hackers to help you with problems.
So much for the advantage to users; OSS has one other big, big
advantage: bugs are trivial.
In traditional, proprietary software, the only people who ever get to
look at the code are a few engineers at the software company. In other
words, maybe a couple dozen eyes scan the code; and a couple dozen
eyes are invariably going to miss bugs. With the best will in the world,
proprietary software is buggy software.
In the OSS world, thousands of eyes look at the code. And when an
experienced user finds a problem, he can do something about it, instantly,
because he has the source code. If he has the skills, he can fix the
problem himself--and email the bug fix to the people who manage this OSS
project. They'll review it, and if it makes sense, it will get incorporated
immediately in the next release of the software. Even if you can't fix the
problem yourself, you can alert the OSS team to the problem--and they'll
put it on the list of known bugs, and some hacker will notice it and decide
it needs a solution.
|NetHack: an OSS game that's a hacker's delight, but stuck in the graphical dark ages.|
OSS teams typically do dozens of new software releases every year. The
software improves continuously and incrementally. The result: Linux is the
single most stable operating system in the world. Apache servers have run
literally for years at a time without a crash.
But...how does anyone make money doing this? And why would anyone work
on an OSS project?
People work on OSS projects for the egoboo. You make a name for yourself
if you contribute meaningfully. You obtain the respect of your peers. And
"the respect of your peers" can translate into consulting work, book
contracts, tenure, investment capital.... You may not become rich like Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen, but you can live a perfectly good life, like Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium.
Eric Raymond, for instance, is pursued by people offering consulting gigs,
solicited by venture capitalists, and is a resource for journalists, all
because he's responsible for fetchmail, one of the key bits of software
that gets your email delivered. (Well, that plus he's a relentless
It's a potluck economy; give, and you shall receive. As such, it is
subversive of the whole established process of commercial software
And as a software development model, it's winning. Apache is gaining
market share at the expense of Microsoft's and Netscape's internet servers.
Linux is destroying the market for proprietary versions of Unix. The GUI
interfaces for Linux are still not ready for prime time--but this is the
last, best hope for attacking the Microsoft monopoly in operating systems.
Can it work for games?
Cool--and fascinating. But for someone who's a gamer and game
developer, the question immediately arises: can open-source software
development work in gaming?
In a sense, it already has. I don't know about you, but when I'm tired
and want to play a game for a bit and don't want the intensity and
emotionally draining experience I get from Quake or the degree of
thought required for Civilization II, I fire up NetHack.
NetHack?! Who could be interested in an ASCII graphics game in
this era of real-time 3D?
NetHack has more depth of gameplay, more clever little
ways to beat the system, more variety, and more humor than 99+ percent of the
games published today. Sure it's stuck in the world of ASCII, but the
game's the thing, not the media glitz, right? Hell, I play a lot of
Cheapass boardgames, printed in black
and white on paper. I play a lot of paper RPGs, scribbling on notepaper
with pencils. Sure I admire nicely rendered graphics and a hot 3D engine,
but I don't play games because I like pretty visuals or cool sounds; if
that's all I want, I'll go to the movies or, for that matter, the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Give me a game--and that's what
NetHack gives me.
Next page: so does NetHack have a place in the modern world?