Free Software Successes
The ideas laid out above show why the free software idea makes sense ethically. The free software community has taken advantage of its unique development paradigm to create many truly amazing pieces of software. Places like Metalab are huge repositories of free software, containing literally thousands of free software packages with full source code. Free software has been a major player in the Internet, and hence the global communications revolution that it has caused. The benefits from the contributions of free software to society and global communication are tremendous. While it is not possible to provide an in-depth analysis of each of thousands of packages and the good they've done for computing and the world, it is at least possible to analyze the improvements that some of them have brought to us because of the free software paradigm.
The Apache free-software web browser is currently the world's most popular. 53% of all Internet World Wide Web servers run Apache, more than twice that of all the Microsoft servers combined, its nearest competitor. 9 Due to its open development model, Apache has attracted new features faster than anyone else. Programmers on the Internet contribute to the product and make it better.
Apache is dominant for several reasons. One is that it is arguably the most feature-rich web server in existence today. This stems from the fact that a free-software project such as Apache can tap a huge resource of programmers to contribute to the code and make it better. Another is that Apache is free—both in terms of cost and in terms of freedom to use it as desired. Small companies, home computing users, poorer countries, charities, under-funded organizations, and the like can all afford to run Apache. Few, if any, of them could afford to run the commercial servers. Because Apache is available at no cost, many people are able to publish their ideas and information that otherwise would go unpublished. Apache provides stability that is unmatched by its commercial competitors, thanks in large part to the free software peer review process.
For many years, the single largest consumer of traffic on the Internet was e-mail. It still uses a large amount of bandwidth worldwide, and is working to revolutionize our communications. A free software program has been largely responsible for this. That program is sendmail. Today, sendmail powers over 75% of the world's Internet e-mail servers.18 Like Apache, sendmail has done its part to usher in a communications revolution. Because it costs nothing to use, anyone can have a mail server. Sendmail is widely regarded as being the most powerful mail server available today, and this is mostly because of the free software design paradigm.
As living proof that programmers working on free software can make money, one need look no further than sendmail. Its authors have set up a profitable business that sells commercial support contracts and related items for sendmail.
On March 31, 1998, Netscape Communications Corp. did something that shook the industry: They released the source code to their next web browser, code-named Mozilla, as free software. Never before had such a large and well-known closed-software program been converted to the free software paradigm. Netscape, the world's most popular browser, had been losing market share to Microsoft's browser. Netscape needed a way to pull ahead, both in terms of features and development speed. Free software provided that opportunity for them.
Since that time, Mozilla has taken off. It now has features to make the Internet more accessible to people. Mozilla uses less memory than other browsers, and yet can do more. It is conceivable that Mozilla will be small enough to provide full-featured Internet access on palm-sized computers in the near future. Mozilla has features to speed web browsing by 30%. Developers have ported Mozilla to a huge number of different types and architectures of computers even though Mozilla has yet to be released as a finished product. There are already many people who can use the Web that could not before.
Apache, sendmail, and Mozilla are all important. Apache and sendmail have played an important part in revolutionizing Internet communications. From the looks of things, Mozilla will do so some day as well. All of this is great, but there's another free-software phenomenon that's taken the closed-source community by surprise: Linux. Linux is an operating system written entirely using free software. Since development started in 1991, Linux has grown at a tremendous rate. Linux sports very rapid development speed, excellent performance and stability. The Linux operating system is used for both running and developing other free software projects as have been described here. In many ways, Linux is better than closed operating systems. Linux's stability is legendary, as is its speed. Linux has done a lot to help spread the word of the free software revolution. Programming students now have a stable platform to use for development. Businesses don't have to worry about crashes. People with slower computers don't have to worry about upgrading, in many cases.
In the eyes of some Linux advocates, however, Linux's greatest achievement has yet to be attained, but it is well on its way. Due to the extreme importance of the operating system on any modern computer, Linux is in a great position to demonstrate to the world the benefits of free software. Many feel that Linux could one day topple the closed-software paradigm and the huge companies that encourage it. Many would argue that this has already taken place.
As we've seen above, the free software paradigm has many advantages. Linux is helping to bring the free software paradigm to the masses, and as such, is doing a tremendous favor for computing.