A FEW years ago I worked on a small publishing project in northern California. As often happens now, the project was entirely edited and laid out on a computer network -- four Apple Macintoshes in this case. Because the project had many pictures, which computers treat as very large files, we added a powerful new-model Mac to the network and a fancy laser printer that could produce photo-quality images. To our dismay, the improvements broke the system horribly. We tried to fix it by every method we could think of: fiddling with configuration screens, deleting and reinstalling software, combing through the Internet for advice, calling technical-support numbers, cursing at the machines while turning them on and off repeatedly. A hired computer consultant swaggered into our offices. Hours later he staggered out in defeat. Although we were not far from Silicon Valley, we couldn't find anyone who could fix our boxes.
By luck we eventually resuscitated our machines. But we still had no idea why they had so many problems, other than our incautious decision to revamp the network on the eve of a major deadline. Recently I have come to believe that the fundamental cause was one that hardly anyone would have named, even those few years ago: our software was proprietary. In other words, the manufacturers -- Apple, in the main, but also Xanté, which made the printer -- controlled the underlying instructions that made their products work, and kept them secret. Much as no technician could repair a computer if the case were sealed shut, neither we nor our consultant could lift the lid of the software and peer inside to see why our network was down.
This is rapidly changing. Pushed by the growth of the Internet and a new operating system known as Linux, many software companies are considering whether to allow unrestricted access to the underlying instructions -- the "source code," in the jargon -- of their programs. For the computer industry this is a turnabout. Until as recently as last year software companies almost invariably viewed source code as their single most valuable asset. Yet throughout Silicon Valley executives are discussing whether they will be forced, for the sake of corporate survival, to give away something they have always thought worth millions of dollars.