Distributed Innovation and Creativity, Peer Production, and Commons in Networked Economy

Posted on by Brandon Klein

Imagine that in late 1995 someone told you that two groups of engineers were developing a critical piece of web infrastructure—the web server software that handles all the secure communications and payments, serves up pages, and runs the core functions of websites. The first group was Microsoft, then the most valuable software company in the world with a near monopoly hold over the operating system of personal computation; the second was a bunch of engineers, academics, amateurs, and people working for companies that were not engaged in this effort working in their spare time—who were developing the software and handing it out under a license that allowed anyone to copy the software, modify it, and distribute it as they pleased. Perhaps it is hard, as of this writing in 2013, to capture just how stupid the question “Who is going to win this race?” would have sounded to a reasonable person in 1995. And yet, the Apache web server, developed as Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) by the second group has systematically been adopted by a majority of websites over the past 18 years, through two boom and bust cycles. Microsoft trailed a distant second, while the third and fastest growing web server software, Nginx, was also FOSS. FOSS development has made inroads throughout the software platform. Mozilla Firefox has successfully cut into Microsoft Internet Explorer’s browser lead; about 80 percent of most scripting languages, like PHP, Ruby, or Python, are FOSS, and the FOSS operating system Linux dominates in infrastructure applications like server farms or high-end applications like supercomputing, and has expanded to a variety of embedded devices like set-top boxes, and sits at the heart of the Android mobile phone operating system.