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Who will build our digital future?

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Its name, "Open Courseware," is a direct nod to open-source software as its model. "The emergence of Linux was like a global barn-raising," bringing free, high-quality software to countries and institutions that otherwise might get left behind in the global information economy, says Steven Lerman, director of MIT's Center for Educational Computing Initiatives. "If we're successful, we'd like to see the same effect" in higher education.

Similar networks have been built around the human genome project and its descendants; the offering by artists of free online music; and a new research-journal project called the Public Library of Science. Even Al Qaeda has incorporated the approach to build its loosely knit network of terrorist cells.

Its most visible manifestation, however, remains software. Although the open-source approach had been around for decades, it took off in 1991, when Helsinki University student Linus Torvalds took a freely available, stripped-down version of UNIX software and modified it for a PC.

He posted the code; others began to use it, found and fixed bugs, added features, and "Linux" began to spread. Today, Linux has moved into a distant-but-solid second place behind Microsoft for software that runs network computers called "servers" in corporations, banks, and government offices worldwide. During the third quarter of 2003, the number of servers shipping with Microsoft's software grew by some 21 percent over the third quarter of '02. The number of servers shipped with Linux grew 51 percent, according to IDC, an analysis firm in Framingham, Mass.

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