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Editor's Note: Thank You, Builders

Jun 08, 2007, 23:17 (8 Talkback[s])

by Carla Schroder
contributing editor

Today I had an enjoyable phone meeting with Chris Lyman, the head honcho at Fonality. Anytime I have a fun meeting with a vendor it's a bonus; they're all nice folks, but they're not always entertaining. Some are, well, I won't say boring, but certainly dry. So whatever else Fonality has going for it, it has a fun CEO who seems excited about the company. The whole VoIP space is fascinating to me anyway, because it demonstrates the sheer power and inventiveness of open source.

Let's take a wee trip back in time, back to when Richard Stallman had no gray hairs or wrinkles. Back to the time when RMS and the fine folks at the GNU project were writing compilers, debuggers, fileutils, shellutils, binutils, coreutils, diffutils, findutils, fontutils, Emacs, the Bash shell, and all the high-quality Linux tools that we take for granted, and that are the envy of Unix admins everywhere. Let us not forget the GPL, the General Public License, which ensured that all of that great code would be protected, freely available, and freely modifiable and re-distributable. That's a pretty neat trick.

Then along came Intel and the affordable, open i386 platform.

Then along came the Internet, and geeks could talk to other geeks on the other side of the globe without paying big phone bills, and they could share complex information.

Then along came Linus Torvalds, who used that inexpensive Intel hardware platform and GNU tools to write his own operating system, and he used the infant Internet to get other people interested in improving his fledgling operating system. In fifteen short years his little old homegrown operating system has grown into a popular powerhouse that scales effortlessly from tiny routers and telephones to giant mainframes and clusters, and runs on every hardware platform imaginable.

Then along came Mark Spencer, the inventor of the Asterisk iPBX. Because of GNU, Intel, and Linux, Mr. Spencer was able to launch a telephony revolution. Before VoIP (voice over IP), PBX (Private Branch Exchange) systems were hideously expensive, difficult to administer, inflexible, and very limited in functionality. They were barely advanced from the era of Alexander Graham Bell.

Then Mr. Spencer invented Asterisk, the first software PBX. He used Linux, GNU tools, the inexpensive and powerful x86 hardware platform, and the Internet to turn the telephone world upside-down. Now the big tech gold rush is in the VoIP space, and traditional telephony is finally, after all these years, being forced to innovate and progress.

Now we come full circle to Mr. Lyman at Fonality. Fonality has two main products: Trixbox and PBXtra. PBXtra is an iPBX system derived from Asterisk. Trixbox used to be Asterisk@Home, which was the first software iPBX "appliance." It was a complete bundle on a single bootable CD that included Asterisk, useful administration tools and database backends, and the CentOS operating system. Asterisk@Home was pretty much a one-man show, invented and maintained by Andrew Gillis in his spare time.

Then Asterisk@Home became Trixbox. Then Fonality acquired Trixbox, hired Andrew Gillis, and allocated additional personnel and resources to it. Fonality has added a considerable amount of polish and functionality, and it is still a free download.

Oh, and let's not forget CentOS Linux, which is a popular operating system for server "appliances." CentOS is a free-beer clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Yes, Red Hat gives itself away, and yet still makes money. Asterisk gives itself away to its competitors, and still makes money.

I apologize for the cliches, but this illustrates several principals: if you grasp too tightly, you will lose. If you give, you will get. Creativity and genuine invention can't be controlled; they need a fertile, free ecosystem.

Of course some folks are only interested in the bottom line, in dollars and cents. I'll wager that the economic contributions of FOSS to the world economies are far more significant than are reflected in mere sales figures. I'll wager that a certain notorious unpopular monopolist creates a net loss, thanks to losses due to malware, unreliability, high operating costs, its success at crushing competition, and high barriers to interoperability.

I make a good and satisfying living thanks to Free and Open Source software, and I'm not even a programmer. As Linus likes to say, quoting Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Sir Newton may even have cribbed the saying from someone else. Thank you to all of the giants who made all of this incredible richness and opportunity possible.