Whenever I’m asked why Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) is so important, I recount the story of Xanadu. Mind you, that’s not story of the mythical Xanadu, the opulent 13th century summer capital of the Kublai(grandson of Genghis) Khan’s empire that spanned all of Asia. I mean the software vision of Ted Nelson, a genius of the 1960s. That Xanadu is widely acknowledged as the inspiration behind the concept of hypertext, Apple’s original Hypercard and the World Wide Web.
Although its original concept stemmed from technology rather than a business model, it is the latter that probably resulted in its demise. That’s because Xanadu tried to become that era’s digital rights management scheme; a toll-bridge solution. Each time someone clicked on a hyper link, a 2-cent charge would credit that person’s account with a small percentage going to Xanadu. For nearly 25 years, between four and ten scientists worked on some aspect of the project. In the late 1980s, Dave Walker, the CEO of AutoDesk, bought into the vision and plowed through about US$ 24 million trying to make Xanadu a shippable product.
But others had a simpler and clearer vision. Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at the European research centre CERN in Geneva, working with a few collaborators, engineered a completely new competing distributed hypertext system that became the World Wide Web. Tim lobbied and fought with board members at CERN who wanted to control and license the WWW technology to the rest of the world. He emerged victorious and an open standard became the standard. Tim Berners-Lee correctly realized that the value of his making an open contribution of his invention was far more important to humanity than any possible value CERN could bring with stewardship. The rest of the story is, as they say, history and represents the ultimate example of how FOSS has the power to radically change our world.
During the negotiations leading to the first and second phases of the World Summit on the Information Society, there was a growing realization of many government policy makers, particularly those from developing economies, of how FOSS was an important tool to promote digital literacy and improve access to public services for their citizens. But thought leaders are now beginning to realize that the FOSS movement is but one manifestation of something more fundamental and new about how collective intellectual innovation can blossom once networked information infrastructures are in place. In Yale academic Yochai Benkler’s new book, The Wealth of Networks, he notes:
“The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have co-evolved for almost two centuries…A series of changes in the technologies, economic organization, and social practices of production in this environment has created new opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge, and culture. These changes have increased the role of non-market and non-proprietary production, both by individuals alone and by cooperative efforts in a wide range of loosely or tightly woven collaborations.”
We should applaud the efforts of the Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme and the International Open Source Network (IOSN) for their promotion activities of FOSS. This FOSS e-Primer on Network Infrastructure and Security is one of series of simple ‘how-to’ guidebooks they have produced for the lay person.
A globally interconnected information network makes it clear that cyber security is a responsibility of all countries worldwide. But even in developed countries, trained cyber security professionals are lacking so developing economies are at a huge disadvantage. Lacking in resources and with few incentives, it can be argued that developing countries represent the weakest link in promoting global cyber security. This means we need to make special efforts to assist developing economies in adopting the “technology, processes and people” of cyber security. This book represents an excellent contribution toward that laudable goal.
Deputy Head, Strategy and Policy Unit
International Telecommunication Union