One of the biggest problems with open source is understanding what it means out in the real world. I'm not talking about understanding the actual technology. I'm talking about the impact of open source. How open source is actually useful.
What's clear to me is that open source is not an end in itself. Open source is an enabler. It's a catalyst. It allows other things to happen. It's the fulcrum upon which can be rested the lever that will move the world. But it isn't the lever itself.
Open source cannot change the status quo on its own, and of itself. This has become entirely clear now, after 10 years of hype leading to effectively the exact same situation as when we started. No, open source needs to be combined with something else, and that's usually a technology. That technology can be the Web, in the case of Mozilla, or a hardware platform, in the case of the recent netbook revolution.
Below I look at some of the biggest challenges to the current computing status quo. In each and every case, open source is playing a part. It's only now, around ten years after the open source revolution was supposed to have begun, that we're actually seeing things really begin to happen.
In the examples below, it isn't the case that people make a choice to use open source. It's more the case that open source is the only choice because only open source offers what's needed.
Microsoft has a problem, and it's this: Its entire business model is built around discrete computers running discrete applications. Microsoft fell into this business model more by luck than anything else, but it's served them well.
What if there's a move away from this model towards freely-accessible online applications? How can a company whose revenue comes almost entirely from licensing fees live in a world where there are no licensing fees to collect? How can a company feasibly charge $50-$250 for an operating system in a world where an operating system's primary task is an extremely simple one: to let users get online so they can access their data?
The key thing about online applications is that they are platform agnostic. Google Docs works just as well on a Windows PC as it does on a Mac or a Linux box. And I'll bet that a number of people have it working on their Amiga computers too. I access Google Docs on my Nokia N800 handheld--a hardware platform that Microsoft would never touch because it runs Linux, but which is otherwise unserved by office applications.
Put simply, we're getting to a stage in the evolution of computing where Microsoft's role in the scheme of things is shrinking. Bizarrely, Microsoft just don't seem to have realised. Perhaps they're like the archetypal oil tanker--so big and unwieldy that they're simply unable to turn around.
People might still choose to use Microsoft, of course. Old loyalties die hard. But the nature of Microsoft's business model has always been to tie the user to a post, and force-feed them products. Now that tether has been broken. Isn't that liberating?
Open source doesn't require licensing fees, and is like a double-jointed Russian gymnast: It's flexible. Really flexible. This puts it in a far better position to provide a platform for the new platform agnostic online world.
Chrome (technically Google Chromium) is open source because it makes no sense for Google to lock-down software to one hardware platform or architecture. The platform no longer matters in the Google universe, and this perhaps is the biggest difference between the Microsoft and Google philosophies. Microsoft needs you to keep you using Windows and an x86 platform. Google don't care what computer or platform you use, and is actively encouraging you to be eclectic in your choice. Microsoft's approach is all about restriction. Google's approach is all about freedom.
I know which approach sounds healthiest to me.
Microsoft has a problem, and it's this: Virtually its entire business model is based on the x86 platform. It climbed into bed with Intel back in the day, again mostly by accident, but has steadfastly refused to climb out again, even though the bed clothes are smelling a bit musty.
There was a brief flirtation with getting NT to work on alternative chips a few years ago, but that pretty much came to nothing. And Microsoft is prepared to use other platforms in its specialist divisions, such as handheld computers and games consoles. But its core desktop and server businesses are most definitely x86. It's a winning formula. Why change it?
Here's why: the incredibly rampant world of mobile phones and PDAs has lead to a variety of low-powered chips that are making their way into the likes of netbooks. And it's not hard to see how these chips could migrate upwards to all kinds of computing devices.
ARM seems to be the king of this particular empire, and their chips promise insanely long battery life of 8 hours or more, yet with the same features and performance as regular chips (including hi-def video). Netbooks based on ARM chips use significantly less power, and are smaller, and quieter because they lack a fan (low power = less heat).
There's a powerful environmental argument to be made too. Given the choice between a computer that uses 10 watts, and one that uses 200, which would you choose? While America has long-been slow to wake-up to environmental questions such as this, for the rest of the world the answer is a no-brainer. Speaking as somebody who lives in Europe, where energy bills are high, I'll probably never buy a desktop computer again. With power supplies now typically pushing 500-1000 watts, they simply use too much juice. A notebook computer uses just a fraction of that power, and one of these new ARM-based netbooks will use so little power that it's practically negligible.
Now, it's no-doubt possible for Windows to run on ARM, which is after all a completely different architecture compared to x86. Microsoft certainly has the engineering expertise to make it happen. But it would be like converting a petrol engine to run on diesel. It's possible, but a little pointless. After all the hard work is completed you may be wondering why you even bothered.
It's not just Windows that would have be converted, of course--short of creating a messy emulation layer that probably wouldn't work well on these slower processors, key applications such as Office would also need to be ported too.
Linux run on ARM for years. That's the nature of Linux. It isn't locked down, either philosophically or practically. So when the manufacturers of the new ARM-based notebooks look for an operating system, there was virtually only one choice (Windows CE is a possibility but that's too strongly associated with restricted-functionality mobile devices).
In a weird kind of way, Linux has almost a virtual monopoly in the non-x86 marketplace. Microsoft simply aren't there.
Microsoft has a problem, and it's this: Google. This is a battle for silverback supremacy in the jungle because, in reality, the two companies can easily exist alongside each other and be extremely healthy doing so. But this town simply ain't big enough for the two of them.
Google has always been an open source company. Its search engine has run on Linux since day one, and when it was looking for a platform on which to build its Android mobile operating system, it didn't hesitate in choosing Linux (imagine how unthinkable it would be had Google decided that it would use Windows CE instead; such a decision would have been greeted with hoots of laughter). Google has also made efforts to support Linux with its desktop products, such as Google Earth (even if the products themselves aren't open source).
There's little doubt that, should Google launch any further software products or platforms in future, there's a strong chance they'll be open source.
In many key ways, Google uses open source as a weapon with which to beat Microsoft over the head. Google uses open source to define itself, and thereby illustrate the difference between itself and fuddy-duddy Microsoft (a trick also used by Apple, at least a few years ago).
The Google people also know how much open source irritates Microsoft and how using open source destroys Microsoft's traditional "fear, uncertainty and doubt" (FUD) approach to discrediting open source. The next time somebody asks you what Linux ever did for anybody, point out that the Google search they just did was facilitated by it.
Keir Thomas is the author of several books on Ubuntu, including the free-of-charge Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference .