Feature

The ultimate triumph of the internet

Within five years Microsoft will become a fervent supporter of open source

Nine years ago, when this column first appeared, the internet was still a novelty as far as business was concerned. Those firms that had access to an internet account used it principally for e-mail and accessing Usenet. Just as there was no spam in that Edenic time, so too, incredibly, there was no Netscape.

Even though it has all but disappeared today, Netscape remains the iconic company for the golden years of the internet, the one that produced the key product, its Navigator web browser, first released in October 1994.

The other astonishing absence was Microsoft. As Netscape became the defining dotcom, Microsoft was still denying that the internet would ever catch on. I remember being told in 1995 by a senior Microsoft executive that the internet was too difficult for ordinary users and would never emerge from the academic world where it began.

Microsoft started changing its mind around the time that it launched Windows 95. Originally, this appeared without a web browser - despite what the company likes to say about the "integration" of Internet Explorer with Windows. But Windows 95 did include TCP/IP functionality from the start. This made it easy to run the wide range of free internet tools that were available in the mid-1990s - things bearing names such as Archie, Gopher and Wais, which seem exotic today but were part of the rich online ecology of the time.

That richness was later destroyed, but not by the usual villain of the piece, even though Bill Gates and his team maintained a highly ambivalent attitude to this strange new online world for some years. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that alongside Netscape, Microsoft did more than any other company to make the internet popular among general users, largely because of the TCP/IP code included in Windows 95 and Windows NT.

Ironically, the spirit of the early days of the mainstream internet was lost largely because companies such as Netscape and Microsoft, websites such as Yahoo and Amazon.com, and perhaps even columns like Getting Wired, were too successful in convincing people of the potential of this new medium.

As a result, a self-feeding spiral of investor enthusiasm began that culminated in utterly absurd valuations being placed on dotcoms that had surreal business plans, little revenue and not the slightest hope of ever making a profit.

As greed infected swathes of Western society - from the gullible small investors to the staggeringly rapacious venture capital firms, and not forgetting the cynical merchant banks that facilitated the whole process - the driving force behind the internet shifted from the anoraks to the suits. The great engine of internet originality - the reliance on "rough consensus and running code" to produce the best solution for the community - was sabotaged by companies driven by their selfish hunger for "eyeballs".

But the true internet did not die: it simply moved back into the labs and bedrooms where it had first arisen. For the real internet revolution was driven not by share options, but by sharing - specifically, the sharing of free software. I have told the story of this extraordinary phenomenon in my book, Rebel Code, which offers a kind of distillation of the hundreds of Getting Wired columns that have appeared over the past decade.

Proof of the centrality of that tradition is the fact that practically every aspect of the internet depends even today on free software: Bind for the name system, Sendmail for e-mail, Apache for the web, Perl and PHP for e-commerce and content. The continuing advance of open source is evident - and not just in terms of the rising market share for GNU/ Linux and the rest.

The ideas behind free software - and hence those that powered the heady early days of the internet - are so ineluctable, that even as powerful a company as Microsoft is being forced to adopt them. Indeed, I predict that within the next five years Microsoft will follow in the footsteps of IBM to become a fervent supporter of open source, and hence the ultimate symbol of the triumph of the internet spirit.

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This was first published in April 2003

 

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