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updated 7/16/2004 6:50:15 PM ET 2004-07-16T22:50:15

It powers more than 70 percent of all Web servers and routes much of the world's e-mail traffic. It makes surfing the Internet simple and provides the muscle behind Google Inc.'s search engine and countless e-commerce sites.

It's open-source software, a wide spectrum of programs developed not under the lock and key of a single company but by the communal efforts of volunteers who often start with little more than common interests and e-mail discussion groups.

Now, the software once branded the byproduct of dreamers, academics and hobbyists is the foundation of the Internet economy. It's forcing established companies to rethink their business models. And it's giving Microsoft Corp. and other entrenched entities a run for their money.

The best known open-source software, the Linux operating system, has grabbed a chunk of the server business once held by the Unix operating system, a field dominated by vendors like Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. Now Linux is now emerging as a desktop contender.

Another open-source operating system, FreeBSD, is a basic building block of Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS X.

Even less visible projects are making an impact. The Apache project created the world's leading Web server, the software that relays content to Web browsers. Sendmail invented e-mail standards and remains a contender today. Even the basic task of translating a Web address from common words into numbers is predominantly handled by an open-source undertaking, the Berkeley Internet Name Domain project, or BIND.

All share a simple philosophy: Grant a free license to users, include the software blueprints and let anyone make improvements with as few restrictions as possible. Sometimes, depending on the license, improvements must be made freely available.

An idealistic vision
"Our belief was if you give this really generous license, it builds the biggest audience possible," said Brian Behlendorf, a founder of Apache. "And if you do that, you inherently build the largest pool of people interested in contributing back.

"Call it idealism," he said. "It's certainly very idealistic, but it works."

Like Linux and thousands of other projects, Apache has roots in academia. It emerged in 1995, partly from fear that a single company might control both Web servers and browsers.

That company wasn't Microsoft but Netscape Communications Corp. It had hired away the leading developers at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which had created an early browser, Mosaic, and Web server, HTTPd.

But the Illinois center also had given away the server's source code with just one condition: that any redistributions give it credit.

Eight early webmasters, including Behlendorf, started an e-mail discussion group and started sharing their software patches. The group eventually decided to name their project "Apache" after the last Native American tribe to surrender in the United States.

"Somebody else said it makes for a good pun because we're combining all of our patches together so it's a `patchy' server," said Behlendorf, who like the others is working for other companies that are building on Apache.

In part because of its low cost, companies saw little reason to build competing server software. Some, like IBM, chose to build additional proprietary software on top of it to run Web-based applications. Others, like Apple, simply include the Apache product with their software.

By 1999, Apache's success forced the developers to form the nonprofit Apache Software Foundation, which today supports about 20 projects that add more functions to the core server software.

"We still don't have any full-time staff, but we do have a legal structure that allows us to answer any of the questions that a company might have," Behlendorf said.

Legal problems
The communal aspects of open source can lead to thorny legal questions, particularly when a company claims its proprietary code has seeped into a project. Because developers typically don't offer warranties, end users could be held liable for infringements.

That's the case with Linux, which the SCO Group Inc. claims has incorporated its Unix source code without permission. It's filed a handful of lawsuits against end users and has threatened more legal action, though Linux supporters dismiss its claims as unfounded.

Other open-source projects have taken different routes.

Sendmail, an e-mail project that dates to the Internet's early years, formed a company, Sendmail Inc. Its commercial offering is built on top of an open-source project and offers additional features — including legal protection — to corporate customers. It now has about 40 percent of the e-mail server market.

Greg Olson, Sendmail Inc.'s chairman and co-founder, describes the Sendmail project's licensing as more open than other projects — a policy that opens the door to experimentation and testing among its users, particularly as new e-mail standards are being proposed to stem the tidal wave of unwanted messages.

In fact, Sendmail is partnering with traditional companies like Microsoft and Yahoo Inc. to test their proposals for spam-busting.

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"Quite frankly, we're not on a political mission to change the world to open source," he said. "We think it's useful. It's probably the best way to drive innovation. And it's a very good way to develop standards."

Corporate players
Open source also has captured the attention of traditional technology companies. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun have all emerged as supporters of the movement.

Unlike projects that originated in the early days of computing or the Internet, the corporate players have an ulterior motive, said Corey Ferengul, an analyst at the Meta Group research firm.

"They're open sourcing it so that they can sell you other stuff," he said. "Let's be realistic, vendors do not open source technology for the good of the community. They open source it to be able to sell other technology."

But the emergence and adoption of open-source software also is indicative of a fundamental change in the software industry, said Tim O'Reilly, a publisher of high-tech books.

Software, he says, is becoming commoditized just as the personal computer did in the 1980s. Just as some companies like Microsoft and Intel Corp. made a fortune leveraging that open platform then, businesses are searching to find ways to build on open source today.

'Upstarts are reaping the benefits'
Meanwhile, many traditional software companies — and even some open-source developers — aren't grasping the magnitude of the change, O'Reilly says. As a result, upstarts are reaping the benefits, while those who don't react fast enough could be left behind as IBM was in the PC revolution.

During speeches to industry conferences, O'Reilly poses a simple question to make a point: How many people in the group use the open-source Linux operating system? Depending on the audience, as few as 10 percent of hands are raised.

He then asks the crowd how many use Google. Nearly everyone acknowledges use of the popular search engine, which he points out runs Linux as the foundation of its estimated 100,000 computers. Google's search algorithms are built on top of that.

"You think what you use is what's on the computer in front of you," he says. "That's a fundamental change that I think the industry hasn't come to terms with yet."

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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