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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Technology : Culture Of Sharing

It is indeed paradoxical that the more sophisticated that technology becomes, conventional values like sharing become more and more better pronounced. Economist magazine writes about economics of sharing and raises the question can sharing be extended to the non technical world while mapping the sharing that is happening in the technology world. Excerpts with edits and comments added:
The "open source" movement,is a way of making software (and increasingly, other things as well),which relies on the individual contributions of thousands of programmers. The resulting programs are owned by no one and are free for all to use. The software is copyrighted only to ensure it remains free to use and enhance. In essence, therefore, open source involves two things: putting spare capacity (geeks' surplus time and skill) into economic production; and sharing. Co-operation, especially when repeated, can breed reciprocity and trust, to the benefit of all. In the context of open source,- the reason often seems to be that writing open-source software increases the authors' prestige among their peers or gains them experience that might help them in the job market, and they find it funny.
The characteristics of information—be it software, text or even biotech research—make it an economically obvious thing to share. It is a "non-rival" good: there are network( Metcalfe!) effects: ie, the more people who use it, the more useful it is to any individual user. Internet makes the costs of sharing are remarkably low. The cost of distribution is negligible, and co-ordination is easy because people can easily find others with similar goals and can contribute when convenient. Where open source was about sharing information by way of the internet, what is happening now, is sharing of the tangible tools of technology themselves, like computing power and bandwidth. This is because they are widely distributed among individuals, and sold in such a way that there is inherent (and abundant) unused capacity.

The world's most powerful supercomputer is not owned by NEC or IBM, but is a volunteer project called SETI@home that aggregates the spare processing power of around 4m computers. When an individual's PC is idle, a screen-saver application that users have downloaded kicks in and harnesses the computer's processor to decode radio signals in search of extra-terrestrial life. Through "peer-to-peer"systems, people exchange digital copies of music over the internet, sharing not only songs but, more important, the physical memory of their PCs. Tens of millions of people have used peer-to-peer systems, which account for more than half of all internet traffic. Around the world, regulators have granted licences, giving mobile-phone companies the rights to use a specific band of the airwaves,for a price. Spectrum is parcelled out in this way under the assumption that more than one signal on the same frequency results in interference. This has been true until recently, but today radios with cheap microprocessors can pick out competing signals intelligently,the result is that new technology has made the sharing of spectrum possible—radio waves could be a non-rivalrous good—if only this were legally permitted and engineered into the software that runs the wireless devices. Regulators have changed their approaches slightly by allowing secondary markets in spectrum, but this still presumes exclusive, not shared, use. In physical world,other than car pooling – no other practical example exists that demonstrate the principle of sharing so well.

Update: I finished publishing this and noticed Barry Brigg's views on this wherein he says open source projects lack real innovation and adds,Look at the Linux's: they're just third-rate knockoffs of Windows. Can you point to a single thing a Linux machine can do that Windows can't. Sure, there are lots of knockoffs of leading apps like Photoshop and Acrobat and so on. And when Microsoft or Adobe or Macromedia or Apple invest heavily and come out with a cool new feature, rest assured someone will copy it. This is a powerful argument - if we overlook who really innovates all these innovations that Barry talks about - no doubt innovation and speed to market are better fostered and acheived by competitive pressures

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