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Who will build our digital future?

Galvanized by an idea, networks of strangers are challenging traditional firms with products that are just as good, more flexible - and often free.

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As far as revolutions go, the opening salvo was muffled. But for those within earshot, the reverberations were far- reaching. Last month, China - the largest single potential market for almost anything - selected an upstart computer-operating system called Linux for installation on 1 million computers next year. Ultimately, the country plans to install similar systems on 100 million to 200 million machines.

But the deal represents much more than a software deal - or China's declaration of independence from software giant Microsoft. Analysts say it marks a significant victory for an emerging way of building things. Open and highly dispersed networks of motivated people are organizing around galvanizing ideas, often offering results of their work for free.

Such collaborative networks have long been part of human experience, from scientific research to terrorism. But as the approach moves into the commercial realm, especially the software business, it's challenging fundamental notions about who owns ideas and how best to foster innovation.

"Whether it's the rise of a global civil society, economic globalization, or the war against terrorism, all of these things are extremely information-dependent," says John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "The software issue offers us a whole new way of looking at the world."

Known as "open source" in the software world, the concept is spreading to other arenas. At the end of September, for instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., announced that it had reached its initial goal of posting course materials for 500 of its classes on the Web. Eventually, the school plans to post online material for virtually all its 2,100 formal courses. The material can be used freely by anyone and altered to meet local needs, as long as MIT is credited as the source for the material and no one charges for it.

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