Lessons Learned from Open Source

Last July, I wrote a column about Blogger and how its application and others like it are delivering on one of the web's original promises - that anyone can be a publisher.

In last week's column, I argued that a number of factors, including unprecedented cooperation between the mainstream news media and the government, were contributing to a public disservice. For the past several months, I've made it a point to seek out reliable alternative news sources, particularly online sources, so that I could absorb some alternative points of view on the issues surrounding the conflict in Iraq. And what is it that can give rise to numerous alternative news publishers? In part, technology.

It is not difficult to put up a website. One doesn't necessarily need to know HTML to program a website anymore - that's why there are tools like FrontPage, Dreamweaver and other HTML editors. What is difficult is maintaining a website - making it easily accessible and making new information easy to find and manage. This becomes less of a chore when a site is database-driven and can be administered through a web-based interface.



But who can afford a database-driven website? Isn't that what interactive agencies and website development shops get paid gobs of money to create? Truth be told, it's not expensive at all. In fact, there are plenty of tools available to make content publishing (and the maintenance associated with it) pretty much turnkey for any aspiring publisher.

Last week, I had an idea for a website, so I quickly registered a suitable domain with the help of my preferred web host. I then signed up for an account, which gave me space on a server running an open source operating system (Linux), running an open source web server (Apache). A few clicks on my web host's extranet, and I added two items to my hosting account - an open source database (MySQL) and an open source scripting language (PHP). Armed with these tools, I had laid a foundation to be able to run any number of content management systems. I decided on an open source content management system known as PHP-Nuke.

In less than 20 minutes, I had PHP-Nuke installed on my web server. From there, I could easily create a database-driven website without having to painstakingly hand-code pages or committing myself to long, sleepless evenings in the name of content updates. Instead, PHP-Nuke manages how I display content and how my users can experience it. PHP-Nuke comes with several functional modules, including an administration interface, bulletin board forums, search functionality, even an adserver for rotating ads throughout the site. Programmers are constantly writing new modules for PHP-Nuke, due to its open source nature, so the content management system is constantly kept fresh. If I want an e-commerce module so that I can sell product on my website, no problem. Someone has already written one, and all I have to do is download it.

What's the point? Simple. We're getting there.

Look at the advancement of technology, as it pertains to the individual consumer, from a 50,000 foot level. Running a website in 1996 meant that you knew HTML. Running a website today doesn't carry any of that baggage. Okay, now I wouldn't trust my mom to be able to set up a PHP-Nuke website, but it's getting much simpler. It's become much simpler over the past nine years. And we can expect that it will be yet simpler soon. I already see ads on the PHP-Nuke website for web hosting accounts with PHP-Nuke already installed.

So we're not far from the average citizen of the United States being able to launch and maintain a website with little trouble and little technical knowledge. And what happens when we get to that point? The marketplace of ideas explodes with fresh information sources. And that's a good thing.

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