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Kept Alive by Open Source

In 1999, Eric S. Raymond published The Cathedral & the Bazaar, a seminal tome on the open source movement in which he writes: "Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch."

Beloved old technologies don't die. They go open source. For some reason the open source model has enabled dead and dying technologies to stay alive long after commercial interests left them to rot.

The names of once popular but now ancient technologies, such as Gopher, DecNet, Amiga and even the Atari 2600 -- the granddaddy of all video game systems -- still live in the hearts, minds and source code of open source developers.

What magical power does open source possess that allows it to revive the dying and resurrect the dead? In most instances it's the dedication of an individual or a small band of loyalists that refuses to let the technology go away. In some cases it's nostalgia. In others it's simply a matter of meeting a need. And sometimes it's just about scratching an itch.

The Old on The New

The open source model extends a lifeline to old technology in a number of ways. One method is by supporting the old technology on the new, such as allowing an old protocol to run on a new operating system -- usually Linux.

Remember Gopher? Before Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web caught on and before Marc Andreesen came along and developed the first Web browser, there was Gopher, a distributed document search-and-retrieval network protocol.

Thanks to the success of the Web, Gopher has almost disappeared. Open source, though, keeps it alive in the form of a number of different projects, including the GoFish Gopher Server and the Aftershock Gopher Server.

In 1975, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) released DECnet, a peer-to-peer network architecture that, in its day, was an extremely popular technology. Though still in use by a few companies, it has long since faded from the computing landscape due in part to the ubiquity of TCP/IP.

Open source extends a lifeline to DECnet, thanks to the efforts of the DECnet for Linux Project, which provides DECnet Phase IV connectivity for Linux. DECnet even has some support from HP, albeit limited.

"As far as I know, HP still supports DECnet in OpenVMS because of the prevalence of TCP/IP. I think it's not common, though," Patrick Caulfield, project administrator of DECnet for Linux, told internetnews.com.

"The version of DECnet that we develop [Phase IV] is only supported by HP under some very expensive 'prior-version' contract. The newer version [Phase V] is still supported, but I don't know how popular it is. It's quite complicated to set up and use in my honest opinion."

The Atari 2600 first saw light in 1977, eventually becoming one of the most successful and endearing video game consoles of all time. And guess what? It's still alive in the open source world, thanks to the efforts of projects, such as Stella, which is an Atari 2600 emulator that brings the ancient console back to life on Linux, Mac OS X and even Windows.

"In the case of Stella, there wasn't a huge increase in features until it was open-sourced," Stephen Anthony, one of the project administrators for the Stella Project, told internetnews.com. "Progress has been slow due to real-life commitments of all involved, but if the project hadn't been GPL'ed, all development would probably have ceased."

The New on The Old

Open source breathes life into old technology itself by allowing modern operating systems, usually Linux, to run on last millennium's technology.

The Commodore 64 was one of the most popular PCs of its day, and thanks to the LUnix (little Unix) Project, it can be used as a Linux machine today.

Amiga, one of Commodore 64's successors, has also spawned a cottage industry of open source support. The Linux/APUS Kernel is a project that provided the Linux kernel for PowerPC-equipped Amiga computers.

Allan Buxey, one of the project administrators for the Linux/APUS Project, explained that having the ability to run an open source operating system on the Amiga has enabled users to access software (such as Mozilla or OpenOffice) that may otherwise have required an investment in a new computer.

"Sure, AmigaOS has had powerful tools, but a lot of those haven't had development for many many years and cannot handle the new world order," Buxey said.

The Amiga Research Operating System (AROS) is an effort aimed at developing an improved and compatible AmigaOS 3.1 operating system. The Amiga actually still has a commercial overseer, Amiga Inc., and there is apparently an AmigaOS 4.0 in development.

AROS developer Aaron Digulla believes that open source does in fact extend a lifeline to Amiga users.

"A representative from Amiga Inc. will probably decline such a statement, but for many Amiga fans who have been worn out by repeated 'next week' statements, AROS is one of the few things around the Amiga, which seem to be alive."