What operating system is used extensively on the International Space Station? If you answered Windows XP you would be correct. While the majority of the ground-based support systems for the ISS back on Earth are Linux-based, most of the PCs onboard the ISS run good ol' Winders XP ... but not for much longer.
No, indeed, it's going to be bye-bye Bill and hello Linus because, soon, the dozens of laptops in use on the ISS will all be running Debian 6. According to Keith Chuvala, a United Space Alliance contractor, manager of Space Operations Computing (SpOC) for NASA, and leader of the ISS's Laptops and Network Integration Teams: "We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust or adapt, we could."
That sums up nicely why Linux matters: Innovation and timely response is fostered far more easily by open products than by closed, proprietary products. In fact, many of the most exciting solutions to all sorts of IT problems now rely on open software and open standards.
Just a few weeks ago a company I've followed for a long time, RunRev, publishers of the excellent programming language LiveCode, exceeded its campaign goal on Kickstarter (£493,795 was pledged on a £350,000 target), which will enable it to re-engineer its code base and release it as open source. As the company noted in its campaign: "Did you know that Linux only took off after a version of it was created that was modularized with a kernel? We'll be doing the same to LiveCode."
What makes the LiveCode language so powerful is it is incredibly easy to use. It has an English-like syntax that produces highly maintainable code and makes it possible to deliver fast and robust applications.
After the company achieved its Kickstarter objective it released its current source code (which, by the way, produces apps that run on Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android and a "headless" Web application server version) and this fall, when the re-engineering (which is a big project) is due to be completed, the new, shiny crowd-funded version will be released.
With both the current and future releases of the platform anyone can develop apps using LiveCode, except that code developed with the open source version has to itself be open source and code obfuscation isn't supported (the company offers a reasonably priced commercial version that provides secured code and is licensed to deliver closed source applications).
The potential benefits of going open source to RunRev are huge. The company gets its product into the hands of a far wider audience, engages with the developer community which will create enhancements to the platform and help solve problems, and it will still make money from the same commercial developers that it sold to before.
The one downside to RunRev's plan: the company's accountability has become enormous. Its code and, in effect, its entire way of thinking about its product, goes on public display for both compliments and criticisms.
This kind of thinking and risk-taking is the way of the future and sharply contrasts with Microsoft's "old school" thinking that keeps everything hidden, proprietary, and tries to handcuff the users to the products. I wonder how long it will be before LiveCode also gets onto the ISS?
Gibbs is down to earth in Ventura, Calif. Open yourself up to email@example.com and follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).
Read more about software in Network World's Software section.