Have you paid for your last software program? No, not quite yet. But thanks to the growing popularity of Linux and the open source code movement, the days of the high-dollar program may well be numbered.

We've written extensively in the past about technologies that affect middle-market companies and have touched on topics including databases, development and programming tools, multitiered architectures ­ and in the WebWorks column format ­ enterprise portal solutions. And in that new vein, I'd like to address one of the most interesting and significant byproducts of the Internet ­ the whole open source movement, the Linux operating system and the growing array of high- powered software now available for the asking.

Make no mistake, Linux and the open source movement are very much for real. IDC now pegs Linux to be the fastest growing operating system for the next five years and predicts annual growth rates of from 25 percent to more than 50 percent for this open source operating system (OS). Both IBM and Dell Computers now ship a Linux box, giving consumers the first new OS alternative in several years.

Even the commercial software vendors have recognized and adjusted to the open source trend. A growing number, including IBM, Oracle, Informix, BEA, SAP and others, have ported their products to Linux. As these and other industry leaders adapt to the growing reality of Linux, the open source concept gains further credibility as a reliable, mission-critical enterprise solution.

Linux, of course, started as an attempt to create an open source version of the UNIX operating system. There were plenty of naysayers. But thanks to the connectivity of the Internet and the collaborative enthusiasm of the global developer community, the open source movement is now reshaping the entire software landscape.

In addition to creating a complete UNIX replacement OS with symmetric multiprocessing support, the Linux community has built C compilers, C++, Java, Perl, TCL and other development tools. They have refined fully featured database solutions, object brokers, desktop environments and transactional middleware, not to mention some of the world's best version control and configuration management tools. The community has created emulators that run seamlessly under Windows 95 and recently introduced an entire virtual machine that lets you run Windows NT under Linux on a single PC.

It's all free. It's constantly being improved by the developer community. And there's more on the way. So what does the open source movement mean for software developers, vendors and users?

For developers, the open source world gives millions of energetic, enthusiastic hackers an easy and affordable way to learn, participate and contribute. While a developer might pay thousands of dollars for the high-end system, OS and developer's license needed to write and sell code for Windows NT, that same developer can boot a vast universe of Linux solutions on a 486 166 MHz, 32MB machine for just a few hundred bucks. By pretty much eliminating any barrier to developers ­ many of whom write code for fun ­ the Internet-driven open source movement has harnessed the collaborative energies of millions of creative thinkers the world over.

That's a force even the largest commercial software vendors cannot ignore. While more specialized application developers may flourish, few systems vendors have the talent to compete with the innovative force of the open source community. The days are gone when a company could roll out a database or compiler and then expect to live off of it for the next 10 years. If the open source folks create a better widget, and users can get it for free, there's absolutely no reason to pay Software Incorporated big money for a lesser solution.

But where software companies can compete, and where users will always need qualified help, is in the area of Linux and open source technical support. While you can get decent results by posting a Linux-oriented question on the Internet, enterprise-driven managers want the security of a specialized and dedicated support organization. That, I believe, is the future of the software business; and it's a future that can be seen clearly in the proliferation of Linux and open source support ventures.

Of course, it's precisely the software end users that will be the big winners of the open source revolution. They will eventually enjoy easy access to free, high-quality and constantly enhanced code for virtually any general-application software task you can imagine. Those are the promises and the opportunities of Linux and the open source movement. I think it will fundamentally change the nature of the technology business.

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