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How to build software? Henry Ford, meet eBay.

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Armed with cans of the latest energy drink, 100 of the world's top programmers gathered under the glare of flashbulbs Friday to determine who's the fastest and cleverest of them all. The contest: Solve three fiendish problems in 75 frantic minutes. The assembled finalists – the best of 21,000 applicants – hailed from Buenos Aires, Warsaw, and an obscure city on Russia's Volga River.

It's a crowd many employers would drool over, including Google, which hosted the "Code Jam" contest here in its new seven-acre Manhattan complex. But TopCoder, the Connecticut-based company that ran the event, has other ideas. By tapping the best freelance programmers in the world, and letting them compete to write pieces of software, TopCoder and its competitors are creating a new kind of assembly line. In essence, they're dragging Henry Ford into the eBay era.

"It's a very intriguing and attractive model," says Thomas Malone, director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He sees it as a logical extension of advances in communications and computing power.

"Things that are today done inside big companies will, in the future, be done by temporary combinations of very small companies and, in many cases, independent contractors," he says.

Through its contests, TopCoder seeks out and ranks the world's best independent programmers. The company then helps firms tap these 95,000 freelancers for software projects. TopCoder assesses a client's needs, breaks the project into 30 or so components, and opens the design and development work to a series of online competitions. The coder with the best finished product wins "prize money," as does the runner-up, which usually amounts to a few thousand dollars. The small pieces are "sewn" together, usually by TopCoder, and delivered to the client.

"Our competition model drives up quality in a way that no one can duplicate. No one else I know can get four or five [versions] made of the same thing and take the best," says TopCoder's Brendan Wright. And because "people in the US have to compete with people in Romania, you are going to get a certain downward pressure on prices."

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