Free For All - How Linux and the Free Software Movement Undercut the High Tech Titans, Peter Wayner

12. People

When I was in college, a friend of mine in a singing group would often tweak his audience by making them recite Steve Martin's “Individualist's Creed” in unison. Everyone would proclaim that they were different, unique, and wonderfully eccentric individuals together with everyone else in the audience. The gag played well because all the individualists were also deeply committed to living a life filled with irony.

The free source world is sort of a Club Med for these kinds of individualists. Richard Stallman managed to organize a group of highly employable people and get them to donate their $50+-per-hour time to a movement by promising complete freedom. Everyone who showed up valued freedom much more than the money they could be making working for big companies. It's not a bit surprising that all of the free thinkers are also coming up with the same answers to life. Great minds think alike, right?

This large collection of dedicated individualists is predisposed to moments of easy irony. Black is by far their favorite color. Long hair and beards are common. T-shirts and shorts are the rule when it gets warm, and T-shirts and jeans dominate when the weather turns cold. No one wears suits or anything so traditional. That would be silly because they're not as comfortable as T-shirts and jeans. Fitting in with the free thinkers isn't hard.

The group is not particularly republican or democrat, but libertarian politics are easily understood and widely supported. Gun control is usually considered to be wrong, if only because the federal government will move on to controlling something else when they're finished with guns.  10 Taxes are bad, and some in the group like to dream of when they'll be driven away by the free-flowing, frictionless economy of the Internet. Folks like to say things like “Governments are just speed bumps on the information superhighway.”

The first amendment is very popular and many are sure that practically everything they do with a computer is a form of speech or expression. The government shouldn't have the right to control a website's content because they'll surely come to abuse that power in the future. Some even rage against private plans to rate websites for their content because they're certain that these tools will eventually be controlled by those in power. To the most extreme, merely creating a list of sites with information unsuitable for kids is setting up the infrastructure for the future Nazis to start burning websites.

Virtually everyone believes that strong codes and cryptography are essential for protecting a person's privacy online. The U.S. government's attempt to control the technology by regulating its export is widely seen as a silly example of how governments are trying to grab power at the expense of their citizens. The criminals already have the secret codes; why shouldn't the honest people be able to protect their data?

Pornography or references to sex in the discussions are rare, if only because the world of the libido is off the main topic. It's not that sex isn't on the minds of the free software community, it's just that the images are so freely available that they're uninteresting. Anyone can go to www.playboy.com, but not everyone can write a recursively descending code optimizer. People also rarely swear. While four-letter words are common on Wall Street and other highly charged environments, they're rare in the technology world.

Much of the community are boys and men, or perhaps more correctly “guys.” While there are some older programmers who continue to dig the excitement and tussle of the free source world, many are high school and college guys with plenty of extra time on their hands. Many of them are too smart for school, and writing neat software is a challenge for them. Older people usually get bogged down with a job and mortgage payments. It's hard for them to take advantage of the freedom that comes with the source code. Still, the older ones who survive are often the best. They have both deep knowledge and experience.

The average population, however, is aging quickly. As the software becomes better, it is easier for working stiffs to bring it into the corporate environments. Many folks brag about sneaking Linux into their office and replacing Microsoft on some hidden server. As more and more users find a way to make money with the free software, more and more older people (i.e., over 25) are able to devote some time to the revolution.

I suppose I would like to report that there's a healthy contingent of women taking part in the free source world, but I can't. It would be nice to isolate the free software community from the criticism that usually finds any group of men. By some definition or legal reasoning, these guys must be practicing some de facto discrimination. Somebody will probably try to sue someone someday. Still, the women are scarce and it's impossible to use many of the standard explanations. The software is, after all, free. It runs well on machines that are several generations old and available from corporate scrap heaps for several hundred dollars. Torvalds started writing Linux because he couldn't afford a real version of UNIX. Lack of money or the parsimony of evil, gender-nasty parents who refuse to buy their daughters a computer can hardly be blamed.

In fact, many of the people online don't even know the gender of the person on the other end. Oblique nicknames like “303,” “nomad,” “CmdrTaco,” or “Hemos” are common. No one knows if you're a boy or a girl online. It's almost like the ideal of a gender-free existence proposed by the unisex dreamers who wrote such stuff as “Free to Be You and Me,” trying to convince children that they were free to pursue any dream they wanted. Despite the prevalence of these gender-free visions, the folks who ended up dreaming of a world where all the software was free turned out to be almost entirely men.

Most of the men would like to have a few more women show up. They need dates as much as any guy. If anything, the crown of Evil Discriminator might be placed on the heads of the girls who scorn the guys who are geeks, dweebs, and nerds. A girl couldn't find a better ratio of men if she tried.

This may change in the future if organizations like LinuxChix (www.linuxchix.org) have their way. They run a site devoted to celebrating women who enjoy the open source world, and they've been trying to start up chapters around the world. The site gives members a chance to post their names and biographical details. Of course, several of the members are men and one is a man turning into a woman. The member writes, “I'm transsexual (male-to-female, pre-op), and at the moment still legally married to my wife, which means that if we stay together we'll eventually have a legal same-sex marriage.”

Still, there's not much point in digging into this too deeply because the free source world rarely debates this topic. Everyone is free to use the software and contribute what they want. If the women want to come, they can. If they don't, they don't have to do so to fulfill some mandate from society. No one is sitting around debating whether having it all as a woman includes having all of the source code. It's all about freedom to use software, not dating, mating, or debating sexual roles in society.

Racial politics, however, are more complicated. Much of the Linux community is spread out throughout the globe. While many members come from the United States, major contributors can be found in most countries. Linus Torvalds, of course, came from Finland, one of the more technically advanced countries in the world. Miguel de Icaza, the lead developer of the GNOME desktop, comes from Mexico, a country perceived as technically underdeveloped by many in the United States.

Jon Hall, often called maddog, is one of the first members of corporate America to recognize that neat things were going on throughout the world of open source software. He met Torvalds at a conference and shipped him a Digital computer built around the Alpha chip when he found out that Torvalds wanted to experiment with porting his software to a 64-bit architecture. Hall loves to speculate about the spread of free software throughout the globe and says, “Who knows where the next great mind will come from? It could be Spain, Brazil, India, Singapore, or dare I say Finland?”

In general, the free source revolution is worldwide and rarely encumbered by racial and national barricades. Europe is just as filled with Linux developers as America, and the Third World is rapidly skipping over costly Microsoft and into inexpensive Linux. Interest in Linux is booming in China and India. English is, of course, the default language, but other languages continue to live thanks to automatic translation mechanisms like Babelfish.

This border-free existence can only help the spread of free source software. Many countries, claiming national pride, would rather use software developed by local people. Many countries explicitly distrust software coming from the United States because it is well known that the U.S. government tries to restrict security software like encryption at the request of its intelligence-gathering agencies. In November 1999, the German government's Federal Ministry of Finance and Technology announced a grant for the GNU Privacy Guard project. Why would a country want to send all of its money to Redmond, Washington, when it could bolster a local group of hackers by embracing a free OS? For everyone but the United States, installing a free OS may even be a patriotic gesture.

12.1. Icons

The archetypes are often defined by prominent people, and no one is more central to the free source world than Richard Stallman. Some follow the man like a disciple, others say that his strong views color the movement and scare away normal people. Everyone goes out of their way to praise the man and tell you how much they respect what he's done. Almost everyone will turn around and follow the compliment with a veiled complaint like, “He can be difficult to work with.” Stallman is known for being a very unreasonable man in the sense that George Bernard Shaw used the word when he said, “The Reasonable man adapts to nature. The unreasonable man seeks to adapt nature to himself. Therefore it is only through the actions of unreasonable men that civilization advances.” The reasonable man would still be waiting on hold as the tech support folks in MegaSoft played with their Nerf footballs and joked about the weenies who needed help using their proprietary software.

I often think that only someone as obsessed and brilliant as Stallman could have dreamed up the GNU Public License. Only he could have realized that it was possible to insist that everyone give away the source code and allow them to charge for it at the same time if they want. Most of us would have locked our brains if we found ourselves with a dream of a world of unencumbered source code but hobbled by the reality that we needed money to live. Stallman found himself in that place in the early days of the Free Software Foundation and then found a way to squeeze his way out of the dilemma by charging for CD-ROMs and printed manuals. The fact that others could still freely copy the information they got meant that he wasn't compromising his core dream.

If Stallman is a product of MIT, then one opposite of him is the group of hackers that emerged from Berkeley and produced the other free software known as FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD. Berkeley's computer science department always had a tight bond with AT&T and Sun and shared much of the early UNIX code with both.

While there were many individuals at Berkeley who are well known among developers and hackers, no one stands out like Richard Stallman. This is because Stallman is such a strong iconoclast, not because Berkeley is the home of ne'er-do-wells who don't measure up. In fact, the pragmatism of some of the leaders to emerge from the university is almost as great as Stallman's idealism, and this pragmatism is one of the virtues celebrated by Berkeley's circle of coders. For instance, Bill Joy helped develop much of the early versions of the BSD before he went off to take a strong leadership role at Sun Microsystems.

Sun has a contentious relationship with the free software world. It's far from a free software company like Red Hat, but it has contributed a fair number of lines of software to the open source community. Still, Sun guards its intellectual property rights to some packages fiercely and refuses to distribute the source with an official open source license. Instead, it calls their approach the “community source license” and insists that it's good enough for almost everyone. Users can read the source code, but they can't run off with it and start their own distribution.

Many others from Berkeley followed Joy's path to Sun. John Ousterhout left his position as a professor at Berkeley in 1994 to move to Sun. Ousterhout was known for developing a fairly simple but powerful scripting tool known as TCL/Tk. One part of it, the Tool Control Language (TCL), was a straightforward English-like language that made it pretty easy for people to knit together different modules of code. The user didn't have to be a great programmer to work with the code because the language was designed to be straightforward. There were no complicated data structures or pointers. Everything was a string of ASCII text.

The second part, the Tool kit (Tk), contained a variety of visual widgets that could be used to get input for and output from a program. The simplest ones were buttons, sliders, or menus, but many people wrote complicated ones that served their particular needs.

The TCL/Tk project at Berkeley attracted a great deal of attention from the Net. Ousterhout, like most academics, freely distributed his code and did a good job helping others use the software. He and his students rewrote and extended the code a number of times, and this constant support helped create even more fans. The software scratched an itch for many academics who were smart enough to program the machines in their lab, but burdened by more important jobs like actually doing the research they set out to do. TCL/Tk picked up a wide following because it was easy for people to learn a small amount quickly. Languages like C required a semester or more to master. TCL could be picked up in an afternoon.

Many see the pragmatism of the BSD-style license as a way for the Berkeley hackers to ease their trip into corporate software production. The folks would develop the way-out, unproven ideas using public money before releasing it with the BSD license. Then companies like Sun would start to resell it.

The supporters of the BSD licenses, of course, don't see corporate development as a bad thing. They just see it as a way for people to pay for the extra bells and whistles that a dedicated, market-driven team can add to software.

Ousterhout's decision to move to Sun worried many people because they thought it might lead to a commercialization of the language. Ousterhout answered these with an e-mail message that said TCL/Tk would remain free, but Sun would try to make some money on the project by selling development tools.

"Future enhancements made toTcl andTk by my group at Sun, including the ports to Macs and PCs, will be made freely available to anyone to use for any purpose. My view, and that of the people I report to at Sun, is that it wouldn't work for Sun to try to takeTcl andTk proprietary anyway: someone (probably me, in a new job) would just pick up the last free release and start an independent development path. This would be a terrible thing for everyone since it would result in incompatible versions.

“Of course, Sun does need to make money from the work of my team or else they won't be able to continue to support us. Our current plan is to charge for development tools and interesting extensions and applications. Balancing the public and the profitable will be an ongoing challenge for us, but it is very important both to me and to Sun to keep the support of the existing Tcl community,” he wrote.

In some respects, Ousterhout's pragmatism was entirely different from Stallman's. He openly acknowledged the need to make money and also admitted that Sun was leaving TCL/Tk free because it might be practically impossible to make it proprietary. The depth of interest in the community made it likely that a free version would continue to evolve. Stallman would never cut such a deal with a company shipping proprietary software.

In other respects, many of the differences are only at the level of rhetoric. Ousterhout worked on producing a compromise that would leave TCL/Tk free while the sales of development tools paid the bills. Stallman did the same thing when he figured out a way to charge people for CD-ROMs and manuals. Ousterhout's work at Sun was spun off into a company called Scriptics that is surprisingly like many of the other free software vendors. The core of the product, TCL/Tk 8.1 at this time, is governed by a BSD-style license. The source code can be downloaded from the site. The company itself, on the other hand, sells a more enhanced product known as TCLPro.

In many ways, the real opposite to Richard Stallman is not Bill Joy or John Ousterhout, it's Linus Benedict Torvalds. While Stallman, Joy, and Ousterhout are products of the U.S. academic system, Torvalds is very much an outsider who found himself trying to program in Europe without access to a decent OS. While the folks at Berkeley, MIT, and many U.S. universities were able to get access to UNIX thanks to carefully constructed licenses produced by the OS's then-owner, AT&T, students in Finland like Torvalds were frozen out.

“I didn't have many alternatives. I had the commercial alternative [UNIX], which was way too expensive. It was really out of reach for a normal human being, and not only out of reach in a monetary sense, but because years ago commercial UNIX vendors weren't interested in selling to individuals. They were interested in selling to large corporations and banks. So for a normal person, there was no choice,” he told VAR Business.

When Linux began to take off, Torvalds moved to Silicon Valley and took a job with the supersecret research firm Transmeta. At Comdex in November 1999, Torvalds announced that Transmeta was working on a low-power computing chip with the nickname “Crusoe.”

There are, of course, some conspiracy theories. Transmeta is funded by a number of big investors including Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. The fact that they chose to employ Torvalds may be part of a plan, some think, to distract him from Linux development. After all, version 2.2 of the kernel took longer than many expected, although it may have been because its goals were too ambitious. When Microsoft needed a coherent threat to offer up to the Department of Justice, Transmeta courteously made Torvalds available to the world. Few seriously believe this theory, but it is constantly whispered as a nervous joke.

12.2. Flames

The fights and flamefests of the Internet are legendary, and the open source world is one of the most contentious corners of the Net. People frequently use strong words like “brain dead,” “loser,” “lame,” “gross,” and “stoooopid” to describe one another's ideas. If words are the only way to communicate, then the battle for mindshare means that those who wield the best words win.

In fact, most of the best hackers and members of the free source world are also great writers. Spending days, weeks, months, and years of your life communicating by e-mail and newsgroups teaches people how to write well and get to the point quickly. The Internet is very textual, and the hard-core computer programmers have plenty of experience spitting out text. As every programmer knows, you're supposed to send e-mail to the person next to you if you want to schedule lunch. That person might be in the middle of something.

Of course, there's a danger to making a sweeping generalization implying that the free source world is filled with great writers. The fact is that we might not have heard from the not-so-great writers who sit lurking on the Net. While some of the students who led the revolutions of 1968 were quite articulate, many of the tie-dyed masses were also in the picture. You couldn't miss them. On the Internet, the silent person is invisible.

Some argue that the free software world has burgeoned because the silent folks embraced the freely available source code. Anyone could download the source code and play with it without asking permission or spending money. That meant that 13-year-old kids could start using the software without asking their parents for money. SCO Unix and Windows NT cost big bucks.

This freedom also extended to programmers at work. In many companies, the computer managers are doctrinaire and officious. They often quickly develop knee-jerk reactions to technologies and use these stereotypes to make technical decisions. Free software like Linux was frequently rejected out of hand by the gatekeepers, who thought something must be wrong with the software if no one was charging for it. These attitudes couldn't stop the engineers who wanted to experiment with the free software, however, because it had no purchase order that needed approval.

The invisible-man quality is an important part of the free software world. While I've described the bodies and faces of some of the betterknown free source poster boys, it is impossible to say much about many of the others. The community is spread out over the Internet throughout the world. Many people who work closely on projects never meet each other. The physical world with all of its ways of encoding a position in a hierarchy are gone. No one can tell how rich you are by your shoes. The color of your skin doesn't register. It's all about technology and technological ideas.

In fact, there is a certain degree of Emily Dickinson in the world. Just as that soul selected her own society and shut the door on the rest of the world, the free software world frequently splits and resplits into smaller groups. While there is some cross-pollination, many are happy to live in their own corners. OpenBSD, FreeBSD, and NetBSD are more separate countries than partners in crime. They evolve on their own, occasionally stealing ideas and source code to bridge the gap.

Many writers have described some of their problems with making hay of the Silicon Valley world. Screenwriters and television producers often start up projects to tap into the rich texture of nerdlands only to discover that there's nothing that compelling to film. It's just miles and miles of steel-frame buildings holding acres and acres of cubicles. Sure, there are some Ping-Pong tables and pinball machines, but the work is all in the mind. Eyes want physical action, and all of the excitement in a free source world is in the ideas.

But people are people. While there's no easy way to use the old standbys of race or clothes to discriminate, the technical world still develops ways to classify its members and place them in camps. The free software world has its own ways to distinguish between these camps.

The biggest distinction may be between folks who favor the GPL and those who use the BSD-style license to protect their software. This is probably the biggest decision a free software creator must make because it controls whether others will be able to build commercial versions of the software without contributing the new code back to the project.

People who embrace the GPL are more likely to embrace Richard Stallman, or at least less likely to curse him in public. They tend to be iconoclastic and individualistic. GPL projects tend to be more cultish and driven by a weird mixture of personality and ain't-it-cool hysteria.

The people on the side of BSD-style license, on the other hand, seem pragmatic, organized, and focused. There are three major free versions of BSD UNIX alone, and they're notable because they each have centrally administered collections of files. The GPL-protected Linux can be purchased from at least six major groups that bundle it together, and each of them includes packages and pieces of software they find all over the Net.

The BSD-license folks are also less cultish. The big poster boys, Torvalds and Stallman, are both GPL men. The free versions of BSD, which helped give Linux much of its foundation, are largely ignored by the press for all the wrong reasons. The BSD teams appear to be fragmented because they are all separate political organizations who have no formal ties. There are many contributors, which means that BSD has no major charismatic leader with a story as compelling as that of Linus Torvalds.

Many contributors could wear this mantle and many have created just as much code. But life, or at least the media's description of it, is far from fair.

The flagship of the BSD world may be the Apache web server group, which contributed greatly to the success of the platform. This core team has no person who stands out as a leader. Most of the people on the team are fully employed in the web business, and several members of the team said that the Apache team was just a good way for the people to advance their day jobs. It wasn't a crusade for them to free source code from jail.

The Apache web server is protected by a BSD-style license that permits commercial reuse of the software without sharing the source code. It is a separate program, however, and many Linux users run the software on Linux boxes. Of course, this devotion to business and relatively quiet disposition isn't always true. Theo de Raadt, the leader of the OpenBSD faction, is fond of making bold proclamations. In his interview with me, he dismissed the Free Software Foundation as terribly misnamed because you weren't truly free to do whatever you wanted with the software.

In fact, it's easy to take these stereotypes too far. Yes, GPL folks can be aggressive, outspoken, quick-thinking, driven, and tempestuous. Sure, BSD folks are organized, thorough, mainstream, dedicated, and precise. But there are always exceptions to these rules, and the people in each camp will be quick to spot them.

Someone might point out that Alan Cox, one of the steadfast keepers of the GPL-protected Linux kernels, is not particularly flashy nor given to writing long manifestos on the Net. Others might say that Brian Behlendorf has been a great defender of the Apache project. He certainly hasn't avoided defending the BSD license, although not in the way that Stallman might have liked. He was, after all, one of the members of the Apache team who helped convince IBM that they could use the Apache web server without danger.

After BSD versus GPL, the next greatest fault line is the choice of editor. Some use the relatively simple vi, which came out of Berkeley and the early versions of BSD. Others cleave to Stallman's Emacs, which is far more baroque and extreme. The vi camp loves the simplicity. The Emacs fans brag about how they've programmed their version of Emacs to break into the White House, snag secret pictures of people in compromising positions, route them through an anonymous remailer, and negotiate for a big tax refund all with one complicated control-meta-trans keystroke.

While this war is well known, it has little practical significance. People can choose for themselves, and their choices have no effect on others. GPL or BSD can affect millions; vi versus Emacs makes no big difference. It's just one of the endless gag controversies in the universe. If Entertainment Tonight were covering the free software world, they would spend hours cataloging which stars used vi and which used Emacs. Did Shirley MacLaine use vi or Emacs or even wordstar in a previous life?

Some of the other fault lines aren't so crisp, but end up being very important. The amount of order or lack of order is an important point of distinction for many free source people, and there is a wide spectrum of choices available. While the fact that all of the source code is freely redistributable makes the realm crazy, many groups try to control it with varying amounts of order. Some groups are fanatically organized. Others are more anarchic. Each has a particular temperament.

The three BSD projects are well known for keeping control of all the source code for all the software in the distribution. They're very centrally managed and brag about keeping all the source code together in one build tree. The Linux distributions, on the other hand, include software from many different sources. Some include the KDE desktop. Others choose GNOME. Many include both.

Some of the groups have carefully delineated jobs. The Debian group elects a president and puts individuals in charge of particular sections of the distribution. Or perhaps more correctly, the individuals nominate themselves for jobs they can accomplish. The group is as close to a government as exists in the open software world. Many of the Open Source Initiative guidelines on what fits the definition of “open source” evolved from the earlier rules drafted by the Debian group to help define what could and couldn't be included in an official Debian distribution. The OpenBSD group, on the other hand, opens up much of the source tree to everyone on the team. Anyone can make changes. Core areas, on the other hand, are still controlled by leaders.

Some groups have become very effective marketing forces. Red Hat is a well-run company that has marketing teams selling people on upgrading their software as well as engineering teams with a job of writing improved code to include in future versions. Red Hat packages their distribution in boxes that are sold through normal sales channels like bookstores and catalogs. They have a big presence at trade shows like LinuxExpo, in part because they help organize them.

Other groups like Slackware only recently opened up a website. OpenBSD sells copies to help pay for its Internet bills, not to expand its marketing force. Some distributions are only available online.

In many cases, there is no clear spectrum defined between order and anarchy. The groups just have their own brands of order. OpenBSD brags about stopping security leaks and going two years without a rootlevel intrusion, but some of its artwork is a bit scruffy. Red Hat, on the other hand, has been carefully working to make Linux easy for everyone to use, but they're not as focused on security details.

Of course, this amount of order is always a bit of a relative term. None of these groups have strong lines of control. All of them depend upon the contributions of people. Problems only get solved if someone cares enough to do it.

This disorder is changing a bit now that serious companies like Red Hat and VA Linux are entering the arena. These companies pay fulltime programmers to ensure that their products are bug free and easy to use. If their management does a good job, the open source software world may grow more ordered and actually anticipate more problems instead of waiting for the right person to come along with the time and the inclination to solve them.

These are just a few of the major fault lines. Practically every project comes with major technical distinctions that split the community. Is Java a good language or another attempt at corporate control? How should the basic Apache web server handle credit cards? What is the best way to handle 64-bit processors? There are thousands of differences, hundreds of fault lines, scores of architectural arguments, and dozens of licenses. But at least all of the individuals agree upon one thing: reading the source code is essential.

 10. In fact, the federal government already considers encryption software to be a munition and often tries to regulate it as such.