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A Microsoft Veteran Embraces Open Source

John Markoff
December 1, 2008 7:15 am December 1, 2008 7:15 am

Keith Curtis has just written a book about the future of software.

Enterprise Computing

That in itself isn’t unique. More unusual is that Mr. Curtis, an 11-year veteran of Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, believes deeply that open source is the future of software.

Microsoft, of course, has long been the archenemy of the open source community, which is built on the notion of freely sharing intellectual property for the good of the community. I.B.M. and Sun Microsystems have embraced the open source cause, as have other technology giants. Even Apple’s OS X operating system is at its core open source — an Apple executive has said that more than 50 percent of the lines of code in OS X come from the open source Berkeley Software Distribution and related projects.

In contrast, Microsoft has made only grudging accommodations to the open source movement, offering some of its source code to programmers who use its technology while valiantly arguing that for-pay software is less expensive than free software when you consider the bigger picture.

Mr. Curtis, who joined Microsoft in 1993 and left in 2004, begs to differ. And while he says he holds no grudge against his former employer, in the long run, the company “is toast.”

His book, “After the Software Wars,” was published last month by Lulu.com, a Web-based publishing service that makes it possible for Mr. Curtis to give the first 1,000 readers the option of downloading a free version of the book (590 people have already taken advantage of the offer) or purchasing a paperback version for $19.97 (so far he has sold 11 copies, five of which were purchased by his mom).

He takes a programmer’s approach in “Software Wars,” attempting to systematically build a case that software can help pave the way for a 21st-century renaissance in many fields ranging from artificial intelligence (cars that drive themselves) to the human journey into space (space elevators).
For Mr. Curtis, the strength of open source software, and why it’s the future, is all about leveraging our collective intelligence.

He argues that, in the same collaborative fashion that the Linux operating system has been built and improved, many things that are now science-fiction goals — such as those cars that drive themselves — can be achieved.

“The key to faster technological progress is making software free,” he writes. “The difference between free, and non-free or proprietary software, is similar to the divide between science and alchemy. Before science, there was alchemy, where people guarded their ideas because they wanted to corner the market on the mechanisms used to convert lead into gold.”

He notes that there is an important parallel to the end of the Dark Ages, which came when society began to freely share advancements in math and science.

None of his arguments are new. What is intriguing is where Mr. Curtis comes from.

He recalls meeting Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for the first time at the software magnate’s Lake Washington home. Mr. Curtis was a 20-year-old college intern at the time, and he had planned for the meeting long in advance. He approached Mr. Gates (who was holding a Coke and had a small ketchup stain on his shirt) with several arcane questions. Mr. Gates’s answers convinced Mr. Curtis that Microsoft would be one of the best places in the world to learn the craft of computer programming. While there, he worked on the company’s database products, its Windows operating sytem, Office, MSN and in research.

Ultimately, he left because he was bored: “The amount I learned in my 11th year was much less than what I had learned in my first year, and the stock had become stagnant.”

While he was at Microsoft, he had learned little about the open source world. In cafeteria conversation, he had usually taken the position that proprietary software would always maintain a technology lead over open source. He recalled a friend who had tried to install Linux in 1999, but gave up because the backspace key didn’t work.

After he left Microsoft, he installed a copy of the Linux operating system on a lark. His world was turned upside down. He spent three years exploring the open source world — reading, attending conferences, looking at source code and talking to the rank-and-file members of the open source community.

Mr. Curtis says he’s not bitter about his time at Microsoft, but the world has moved on. “I loved working there, learned an enormous amount, made a few shekels, and enjoyed the privilege of working alongside many brilliant minds. Like many things in life, it was fun while it lasted.”


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