Free For All - How Linux and the Free Software Movement Undercut the High Tech Titans
Peter Wayner (2002-12-22)

24. Future

David Henkel-Wallace sat quietly in a chair in a Palo Alto coffee shop explaining what he did when he worked at the free software firm Cygnus. He brought his new daughter along in a baby carriage and kept her parked alongside. Cygnus, of course, is one of the bigger successes in the free software world. He helped make some real money building and sustaining the free compiler, GCC, that Richard Stallman built and gave away. Cygnus managed to make the real money even after they gave away all of their work.

In the middle of talking about Cygnus and open source, he points to his child and says, “What I'm really worried about is she'll grow up in a world where software continues to be as buggy as it is today.” Other parents might be worried about the economy, gangs, guns in schools, or the amount of sex in films, but Henkel-Wallace wants to make sure that random software crashes start to disappear.

He's done his part. The open source movement thrives on the GCC compiler, and Cygnus managed to find a way to make money on the process of keeping the compiler up to date. The free operating systems like Linux or FreeBSD are great alternatives for people today. They're small, fast, and very stable, unlike the best offerings of Microsoft or Apple. If the open software movement continues to succeed and grow, his child could grow up into a world where the blue screen of death that terrorizes Microsoft users is as foreign to them as manual typewriters.

No one knows if the open software world will continue to grow. Some people are very positive and point out that all the features that made it possible for the free OSs to bloom are not going away. If anything, the forces of open exchange and freedom will only accelerate as more people are drawn into the mix. More people mean more bug fixes, which means better software.

Others are not so certain, and this group includes many of the people who are deeply caught up in the world of open source. Henkel-Wallace, for instance, isn't so sure that the source code makes much difference when 99 percent of the people don't program. Sure, Cygnus had great success sharing source code with the programmers who used GCC, but all of those guys knew how to read the code. What difference will the source code make to the average user who just wants to read his e-mail? Someone who can't read the source code isn't going to contribute much back to the project and certainly isn't going to put much value in getting it. A proprietary company like Microsoft may be able to maintain a broad base of loyalty just by offering better hand-holding for the folks who can't program.

Free software stands at an interesting crossroads as this book is being written. It won over a few hackers in garages in the early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, webmasters embraced it as a perfectly good option. Now everyone wonders whether it will conquer the desktop in the next century.

It's always tempting for an author to take the classic TV news gambit and end the story with the earnest punt phrase, “Whether this will happen remains to be seen. ”That may be the most fair way to approach reporting the news, but it's not as much fun. I'm going to boldly predict that open source software will win the long-term war against proprietary companies, but it will be a bloody war and it will be more costly than people expect. Over the next several years, lawyers will spend hours arguing cases; people will spend time in jail; and fortunes will be lost to the struggle.

While it seems difficult to believe, some people have already spent time in jail for their part in the free software revolution. Kevin Mitnick was arrested in 1995 amid accusations that he stole millions if not billions of dollars' worth of source code. There was no trial, nor even a bail hearing. Finally, after almost five years in prison, Mitnick pled guilty to some charges and received a sentence that was only a few months longer than the time he served while waiting for a trial. Mitnick was accused of stealing millions of dollars from companies by breaking into computers and stealing copies of their source code.

In the statement he made following his release, he said, “. . . my crimes were simple crimes of trespass. I've acknowledged since my arrest in February 1995 that the actions I took were illegal, and that I committed invasions of privacy--I even offered to plead guilty to my crimes soon after my arrest.”

He continued, “The fact of the matter is that I never deprived the companies involved in this case of anything. I never committed fraud against these companies. And there is not a single piece of evidence suggesting that I did so.”

This trespass, of course, would be breaking the rules. The irony is that in 1999, Sun announced that it was sharing its source code with the world. They begged everyone to look at it and probe it for weaknesses. The tide of opinion changed and Sun changed with it.

Of course, breaking into a company's computer system will always be bad, but it's hard to view Mitnick's alleged crimes as a terrible thing. Now that source code is largely free and everyone digs public sharing, he begins to look more like a moonshine manufacturer during Prohibition. The free source revolution has given him a rakish charm. Who knows if he deserves it, but the zeitgeist has changed.

There are more arrests on the way. In January 2000, a young Norwegian man was detained by the Norwegian police who wanted to understand his part in the development of software to unscramble the video data placed on DVD disks. Motion picture producers who released their movies in this format were worried that a tool known as DeCSS, which was floating around the Internet, would make it easier for pirates to make unlicensed copies of their movies.

The man, Jan Johansen, did not write the tool, but merely helped polish and circulate it on the Net. News reports suggest an anonymous German programmer did the actual heavy lifting.

Still, Johansen made a great target for the police, who never officially arrested him, although they did take him in for questioning.

At this writing, it's not clear if Johansen officially broke any laws. Some argue that he violated the basic strictures against breaking and entering. Others argue that he circulated trade secrets that were not legimately obtained.

Still others see the motion picture industry's response as an effort to control the distribution of movies and the machines that display them. A pirate doesn't need to use the DeCSS tool to unlock the data on a DVD disk. They just make a verbatim copy of the disk without bothering with the encryption. That leads others to suspect that the true motive is to sharply limit the companies that produce machines that can display DVD movies.

One group that is locked out of the fray is the Linux community. While software for playing DVD movies exists for Macintoshes and PCs, there's none for Linux. DeCSS should not be seen as a hacker's tool, but merely a device that allows Linux users to watch the legitimate copies of the DVDs that they bought. Locking out Linux is like locking in Apple and Microsoft.

The battle between the motion picture community and the Linux world is just heating up as I write this. There will be more lawsuits and prehaps more jail time ahead for the developers who produced DeCSS and the people who shared it through their websites.

Most of the battles are not so dramatic. They're largely technical, and the free source world should win these easily. Open source solutions haven't had the same sophisticated graphical interface as Apple or Windows products. Most of the programmers who enjoy Linux or the various versions of BSD don't need the graphical interface and may not care about it. The good news is that projects like KDE and GNOME are great tools already. The open source world must continue to tackle this area and fight to produce something that the average guy can use.

The good news is that open source software usually wins most technical battles. The free versions of UNIX are already much more stable than the products coming from Microsoft and Apple, and it seems unlikely that this will change. The latest version of Apple's OS has free versions of BSD in its core. That battle is won. Microsoft's version of NT can beat these free OSs in some extreme cases, but these are getting to be rarer by the day. Sun's Solaris is still superior in some ways, but the company is sharing the source code with its users in a way that emulates the open source world. More attention means more programmers and more bug fixes. Technical struggles are easy for open source to win.

Microsoft's greatest asset is the installed base of Windows, and it will try to use this to the best of its ability to defeat Linux. At this writing, Microsoft is rolling out a new version of the Domain Name Server (DNS), which acts like a telephone book for the Internet. In the past, many of the DNS machines were UNIX boxes because UNIX helped define the Internet. Windows 2000 includes new extensions to DNS that practically force offices to switch over to Windows machines to run DNS. Windows 2000 just won't work as well with an old Linux or UNIX box running DNS.

This is a typical strategy for Microsoft and one that is difficult, but not impossible, for open source projects to thwart. If the cost of these new servers is great enough, some group of managers is going to create its own open source clone of the modified DNS server. This has happened time and time again, but not always with great success. Linux boxes come with Samba, a program that lets Linux machines act as file servers. It works well and is widely used. Another project, WINE, started with the grand design of cloning all of the much more complicated Windows API used by programmers. It is a wonderful project, but it is far from finished. The size and complexity make a big difference.

Despite these tactics, Microsoft (and other proprietary companies) will probably lose their quest to dominate the standards on the Internet. They can only devote a few programmers to each monopolistic grab. The free software world has many programmers willing to undertake projects. The numbers are now great enough that the cloners should be able to handle anything Microsoft sends its way.

The real battles will be political and legal. While the computer world seems to move at a high speed with lots of constant turnover, there's plenty of inertia built into the marketplace. Many people were rather surprised to find that there was plenty of COBOL, FORTRAN, and other old software happily running along without any idea of how to store a date with more than two digits. While Y2K incidents fell far short of the media's hype, the number of systems that required reprogramming was still much larger than conventional wisdom predicted. IBM continues to sell mainframes to customers who started buying mainframes in the 1960s. Once people choose one brand or product or computer architecture, they often stay with it forever.

This is bad news for the people who expect the free OSs to take over the desktop in the next 5 or 10 years. Corporate managers who keep the machines on people's desktops hate change. Change means reeducation. Change means installing new software throughout the plant. Change means teaching folks a new set of commands for running their word processors. Change means work. People who manage the computer networks in offices get graded on the number of glitches that stop workflow. Why abandon Microsoft now?

If Microsoft has such an emotional stranglehold on the desktop and the computer industry takes forever to change, will free software ever grow beyond the 10 million or so desktops owned by programmers and their friends?

Its strongest lever will be price. Freedom is great, but corporations respond better to a cost that is close to, if not exactly, zero. Big companies like Microsoft are enormous cash engines. They need a huge influx of cash to pay the workers, and they can't let their stock price slip. Microsoft's revenues increased with a precision that is rare in corporate America. Some stock analysts joke that the stock price suggests that Microsoft's revenues will grow faster than 10 percent forever. In the past, the company accomplished this by absorbing more and more of the market while finding a way to charge more and more for the software they supply. Businesses that lived quite well with Windows 95 are now running Windows NT. Businesses that ran NT are now using special service packs that handle network management and data functions. The budget for computers just keeps going up, despite the fact that hardware costs go down.

Something has to give. It's hard to know how much of a lever the price will be. If the revenue at Microsoft stops growing, then the company's stock price could take a sharp dive. The company manages continually to produce greater and greater revenues each quarter with smooth precision. The expectation of the growth is built into the price. Any hiccup could bring the price tumbling down.

The biggest question is how much people are willing to pay to continue to use Microsoft products. Retooling an office is an expensive proposition. The cost of buying new computers and software is often smaller than the cost of reeducation. While the free software world is much cheaper, shifting is not an easy proposition. Only time will tell how much people are willing to pay for their reluctance to change.

The first cracks are already obvious. Microsoft lost the server market to Apache and Linux on the basis of price and performance. Web server managers are educated computer users who can make their own decisions without having to worry about the need to train others. Hidden computers like this are easy targets, and the free software world will gobble many of them up. More users mean more bug fixes and propagations of better code.

The second crack in Microsoft's armor will be appliance computers. Most people want to browse the web and exchange some e-mail. The basic distribution from Red Hat or FreeBSD is good enough. Many people are experimenting with creating computers that are defined by the job they do, not the operating system or the computer chip. Free source packages should have no trouble winning many battles in this arena. The price is right and the manufacturers have to hire the programmers anyway.

The third breach will be young kids. They have no previous allegiances and are eager to learn new computer technology. Microsoft may ask “Where do you want to go today?” but they don't want to talk with someone whose answer is “The guts of your OS.”The best and brightest 13-year-olds are already the biggest fans of free software. They love the power and the complete access.

The fourth crack will be the large installations in businesses that are interested in competitive bidding. Microsoft charges a bundle for each seat in a company, and anyone bidding for these contracts will be able to charge much less if they ship a free OS. It's not uncommon for a company to pay more than a million dollars to Microsoft for license fees. There's plenty of room for price competition when the bill gets that high. Companies that don't want to change will be hard to move from Windows, but ones that are price-sensitive will be moved.

Of course, free software really isn't free. A variety of companies offering Linux support need to charge something to pay their bills. Distributions like Red Hat or FreeBSD may not cost much, but they often need some customization and hand-holding. Is a business just trading one bill for another? Won't Linux support end up costing the same thing as Microsoft's product?

Many don't think so. Microsoft currently wastes billions of dollars a year expanding its business in unproductive ways that don't yield new profits. It spent millions writing a free web browser to compete with Netscape's and then they just gave it away. They probably gave up millions of dollars and untold bargaining chips when they twisted the arms of competitors into shunning Netscape. The company's successful products pay for these excursions. At the very least, a free OS operation would avoid these costs.

Free OS systems are inherently cheaper to run. If you have the source, you might be able to debug the problem yourself. You probably can't, but it doesn't hurt to try. Companies running Microsoft products can't even try. The free flow of information will help keep costs down.

Of course, there are also hard numbers. An article in Wired by Andrew Leonard comes with numbers originally developed by the Gartner Group. A 25-person office would cost $21,453 to outfit with Microsoft products and $5,544.70 to outfit with Linux. This estimate is a bit conservative. Most of the Linux cost is debatable because it includes almost $3,000 for 10 service calls to a Linux consultant and about $2,500 for Applixware, an office suite that does much of the same job as Microsoft Office. A truly cheap and technically hip office could make do with the editor built into Netscape and one of the free spreadsheets available for Linux. It's not hard to imagine someone doing the same job for about $3, which is the cost of a cheap knockoff of Red Hat's latest distribution.

Of course, it's important to realize that free software still costs money to support. But so does Microsoft's. The proprietary software companies also charge to answer questions and provide reliable information. It's not clear that Linux support is any more expensive to offer.

Also, many offices large and small keep computer technicians on hand. There's no reason to believe that Linux technicians will be any more or less expensive than Microsoft technicians. Both answer questions. Both keep the systems running. At least the Linux tech can look at the source code.

The average home user and small business user will be the last to go.

These users will be the most loyal to Microsoft because they will find it harder than anyone else to move. They can't afford to hire their own Linux gurus to redo the office, and they don't have the time to teach themselves.

These are the main weaknesses for Microsoft, and the company is already taking them seriously. I think many underestimate how bloody the battle is about to become. If free source software is able to stop and even reverse revenue growth for Microsoft, there are going to be some very rich people with deep pockets who feel threatened. Microsoft is probably going to turn to the same legal system that gave it such grief and find some wedge to drive into the Linux community. Their biggest weapon will be patents and copyright to stop the cloners.

Any legal battle will be an interesting fight. On the one hand, the free software community is diverse and spread out among many different entities. There's no central office and no one source that could be brought down. This means Microsoft would fight a war on many fronts, and this is something that's emotionally and intellectually taxing for anyone, no matter how rich or powerful.

On the other hand, the free software community has no central reservoir of money or strength. Each small group could be crippled, one by one, by a nasty lawsuit. Groups like OpenBSD are always looking for donations. The Free Software Foundation has some great depth and affection, but its budget is a tiny fraction of Sun's or Microsoft's. Legal bills are real, and lawyers have a way of making them blossom. There may be hundreds of different targets for Microsoft, but many of them won't take much firepower to knock out.

The free software community is not without some deep pockets itself. Many of the traditional hardware companies like IBM, Compaq, Gateway, Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple can make money by selling either hardware or software. They've been hurt in recent years by Microsoft's relentless domination of the desktop. Microsoft negotiated hard contracts with each of the companies that controlled what the user saw. The PC manufacturers received little ability to customize their product. Microsoft turned them into commodity manufacturers and stripped away their control. Each of these companies should see great potential in moving to a free OS and adopting it. There is no extra cost, no strange meetings, no veiled threats, no arm-twisting.

Suddenly, brands like Hewlett-Packard or IBM can mean something when they're slapped on a PC. Any goofball in a garage can put a circuit board in a box and slap on Microsoft Windows. A big company like HP or IBM could do extra work to make sure the Linux distribution on the box worked well with the components and provided a glitch-free existence for the user.

The hardware companies will be powerful allies for the free software realm because the companies will be the ones who benefit economically the most from the free software licenses. When all of the software is free, no one controls it and this strips away many of Microsoft's traditional ways of applying leverage. Microsoft, for instance, knocked the legs out from underneath Netscape by giving away Internet Explorer for free. Now the free software world is using the same strategy against Microsoft. It's hard for them to undercut free for most users.

The university system is a less stable ally. While the notion of free exchange of information is still floating around many of the nation's campuses, the places are frighteningly corporate and profit-minded. Microsoft has plenty of cash at its disposal and it hasn't been shy about spreading it around places like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. The computer science departments on those campuses are the recipients of brand-new buildings compliments of Bill Gates. These gifts are hard to ignore.

Microsoft will probably avoid a direct confrontation with the academic tradition of the institutions and choose to cut their prices as low as necessary to dominate the desktops. Universities will probably be given “free,” tax-deductible donations of software whenever they stray far from the Microsoft-endorsed solution. Lab managers and people who make decisions about the computing infrastructure of the university will probably get neat “consulting” contracts from Microsoft or its buddies. This will probably not mean total domination, but it will buy a surprisingly large amount of obedience.

Despite these gifts, free software will continue to grow on the campuses. Students often have little cash and Microsoft doesn't get any great tax deduction by giving gifts to individual students (that's income). The smartest kids in the dorms will continue to run Linux. Many labs do cutting-edge work that requires customized software. These groups will naturally be attracted to free source code because it makes their life easier. It will be difficult for Microsoft to counteract the very real attraction of free software.

Of course, Microsoft is not without its own arms. Microsoft still has patent law on its side, and this may prove to be a very serious weapon. The law allows the patent holder the exclusive right to determine who uses an idea or invention over the course of the patent, which is now 20 years from the first filing date. That means the patent holder can sue anyone who makes a product that uses the invention. It also means that the patent holder can sue someone who simply cobbles up the invention in his basement and uses the idea without paying anything to anyone. This means that even someone who distributes the software for free or uses the software can be liable for damages.

In the past, many distrusted the idea of software patents because the patent system wasn't supposed to allow you to lay claim to the laws of nature. This interpretation fell by the wayside as patent lawyers argued successfully that software combined with a computer was a separate machine and machines were eligible for protection.

Today, it is quite easy to get patent protection for new ideas on how to structure a computer network, an operating system, or a software tool. The only requirement is that they're new and nonobvious. Microsoft has plenty of these.

If things go perfectly for Microsoft, the company will be able to pull out one or two patents from its huge portfolio and use these to sue Red Hat, Walnut Creek, and a few of the other major distributors. Ideally, this patent would cover some crucial part of the Linux or BSD operating system. After the first few legal bills started arriving on the desk of the Red Hat or Walnut Creek CEO, the companies would have to settle by quitting the business. Eventually, all of the distributors of Linux would crumble and return to the small camps in the hills to lick their wounds. At least, that's probably the dream of some of Microsoft's greatest legal soldiers.

This maneuver is far from a lock for Microsoft because the free software world has a number of good defenses. The first is that the Linux and BSD world do a good job of publicizing their advances. Any patent holder must file the patent before someone else publishes their ideas. The Linux discussion groups and source distributions are a pretty good public forum. The ideas and patches often circulate publicly long before they make their way into a stable version of the kernel. That means that the patent holders will need to be much farther ahead than the free software world.

Linux and the free software world are often the cradle of new ideas. University students use open source software all the time. It's much easier to do way cool things if you've got access to the source. Sure, Microsoft has some smart researchers with great funding, but can they compete with all the students?

Microsoft's ability to dominate the patent world may be hurt by the nature of the game. Filing the application first or publishing an idea first is all that matters in the patent world. Producing a real product is hard work that is helped by the cash supply of Microsoft. Coming up with ideas and circulating them is much easier than building real tools that people can use.

The second defense is adaptability. The free software distributions can simply strip out the offending code. The Linux and BSD disks are very modular because they come from a variety of different sources. The different layers and tools come from different authors, so they are not highly integrated. This makes it possible to remove one part without ruining the entire system.

Stallman's GNU project has been dealing with patents for a long time and has some experience programming around them. The GNU Zip program, for instance, was written to avoid the patents on the Lempel-Ziv compression algorithm claimed by UNISYS and IBM. The software is well-written and it works as well as, if not better than, the algorithm it replaces. Now it's pretty standard on the web and very popular because it is open source and patent-free. It's the politically correct compression algorithm to use because it's open to everyone.

It will be pretty difficult for a company like Microsoft to find a patent that will allow it to deal a fatal blow to either the Linux or BSD distributions. The groups will just clip out the offending code and then work around it.

Microsoft's greatest hope is to lock up the next generation of computing with patents. New technologies like streaming multimedia or Internet audio are still up for grabs. While people have been studying these topics in universities for some time, the Linux community is further behind. Microsoft will try to dominate these areas with crucial patents that affect how operating systems deal with this kind of data. Their success at this is hard to predict. In any event, while they may be able to cripple the adoption of some new technologies like streaming multimedia, they won't be able to smash the entire world.

The third and greatest defense for the free source ideology is a loophole in the patent law that may also help many people in the free software world. It is not illegal to use a patented idea if you're in the process of doing some research on how to improve the state of the art in that area. The loophole is very narrow, but many users of free software might fall within it. All of the distributions come with source code, and many of the current users are programmers experimenting with the code. Most of these programmers give their work back to the project and this makes most of their work pretty noncommercial. The loophole probably wouldn't protect the corporations that are using free software simply because it is cheap, but it would still be large enough to allow innovation to continue. A non-commercial community built up around research could still thrive even if Microsoft manages to come up with some patents that are very powerful.

The world of patents can still constrain the world of free software. Many companies work hard on developing new technology and then rely upon patents to guarantee them a return on investment. These companies have trouble working well with the free software movement because there's no revenue stream to use. A company like Adobe can integrate some neat new streaming technology or compression algorithm and add the cost of a patent license to the price of the product. A free software tool can't.

This does not preclude the free software world from using some ideas or software. There's no reason why Linux can't run proprietary application software that costs money. Perhaps people will sell licenses for some distributions and patches. Still, the users must shift mental gears when they encounter these packages.

There are no easy solutions to patent problems. The best news is that proprietary, patented technology rarely comes to dominate the marketplace. There are often ways to work around solutions, and other engineers are great at finding them. Sure, there will be the occasional brilliant lightbulb, transistor, radio, or other solution that is protected by a broad patent, but these will be relatively rare.

There are a few things that the open source community can do to protect themselves against patents. Right now, many of the efforts at developing open source solutions come after technology emerges. For instance, developing drivers for DVD disks is one of the current challenges at the time that I'm writing this chapter even though the technology has been shipping with many midpriced computers for about a year.

There is no reason why some ivory-tower, blue-sky research can't take place in a patent-free world of open source. Many companies already allow their researchers to attend conferences and present papers on their open work and classify this as “precompetitive” research. Standards like JPEG or MPEG emerge from committees that pledge not to patent their work. There is no reason why these loose research groups can't be organized around a quasi-BSD or GNU license that forces development to be kept in the open.

These research groups will probably be poorly funded but much more agile than the corporate teams or even the academic teams. They might be organized around a public newsgroup or mailing list that is organized for the purpose of publicly disclosing ideas. Once they're officially disclosed, no patents can be issued on them. Many companies like IBM and Xerox publish paper journals for defensive purposes.

Still, the debate about patents will be one that will confound the entire software industry for some time. Many for-profit, proprietary firms are thrown for a loop by some of the patents granted to their competitors. The open source world will have plenty of allies who want to remake the system.

The patents are probably the most potent legal tool that proprietary software companies can use to threaten the open source world. There is no doubt that the companies will use it to fend off low-rent competition.

One of the biggest challenges for the free software community will be developing the leadership to undertake these battles. It is one thing to mess around in a garage with your buddies and hang out in some virtual he-man/Microsoft-haters clubhouse cooking up neat code. It's a very different challenge to actually achieve the world domination that the Linux world muses about. When I started writing the book, I thought that an anthem for the free software movement might be Spinal Tap's “Flower People.” Now I think it's going to be Buffalo Springfield's “For What It's Worth,” which warns, “There's something happening here / What it is ain't exactly clear.”

Tim O'Reilly emphasizes this point. When asked about some of the legal battles, he said, “There's definitely going to be a war over this stuff. When I look back at previous revolutions, I realize how violent they became. They threatened to burn Galileo at the stake. They said 'Take it back,' and he backed down. But it didn't make any difference in the end. But just because there's a backlash doesn't mean that open source won't win in the long run.”

Companies like Microsoft don't let markets and turf just slip away. They have a large budget for marketing their software. They know how to generate positive press and plenty of fear in the hearts of managers who must make decisions. They understand the value of intellectual property, and they aren't afraid of dispatching teams of lawyers to ensure that their markets remain defended.

The open source community, however, is not without a wide variety of strengths, although it may not be aware of them. In fact, this diffuse power and lack of self-awareness and organization is one of its greatest strengths. There is no powerful leadership telling the open source community “Thou shalt adopt these libraries and write to this API.” The people in the trenches are testing code, proposing solutions, and getting their hands dirty while making decisions. The realm is not a juggernaut, a bandwagon, a dreadnought, or an unstoppable freight train roaring down the track. It's creeping kudzu, an algae bloom, a teenage fad, and a rising tide mixed together.

The strength of the free price shouldn't be underestimated. While the cost isn't really nothing after you add up the price of paying Red Hat, Slackware, SuSE, Debian, or someone else to provide support, it's still much cheaper than the proprietary solutions on the market. Price isn't the only thing on people's minds, but it will always be an important one.

In the end, though, I think the free software world will flourish because of the ideals it embraces. The principles of open debate, broad circulation, easy access, and complete disclosure are like catnip to kids who crackle with intelligence. Why would anyone want to work in a corporate cubicle with a Dilbert boss when you can spend all night hacking on the coolest tools? Why would you want to join some endless corporate hierarchy when you can dive in and be judged on the value of your code? For these reasons, the free software world can always count on recruiting the best and the brightest.

This process will continue because the Dilbert-grade bosses aren't so dumb. I know more than a few engineers and early employees at startup firms who received very small stock allowances at IPO time. One had written three of the six systems that were crucial to the company's success on the web. Yet he got less than 1 percent of the shares allocated to the new CEO who had just joined the company. The greed of the non-programming money changers who plumb the venture capital waters will continue to poison the experience of the programmers and drive many to the world of free software. If they're not going to get anything, they might as well keep access to the code they write.

The open source ideals are also strangely empowering because they force everyone to give up their will to power and control. Even if Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, and everyone else in the free software world decides that you're a scumbag who should be exiled to Siberia, they can't take away the code from you. That freedom is a very powerful drug.

The free software movement is rediscovering the same notions that drove the American colonists to rebel against the forces of English oppression. The same words that flowed through the pens of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin are just as important today. The free software movement certifies that we are all created equal, with the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of bug-free code. This great nation took many years to evolve and took many bad detours along the way, but in the end, the United States tends to do the right thing.

The free software movement has many flaws, blemishes, and weaknesses, but I believe that it will also flourish over the years. It will take wrong turns and encounter great obstacles, but in the end the devotion to liberty, fraternity, and equality will lead it to make the right decisions and will outstrip all of its proprietary competitors.

In the end, the lure of the complete freedom to change, revise, extend, and improve the source code of a project is a powerful drug that creative people can't resist. Shrink-wrapped software's ease-of-use and prepackaged convenience are quite valuable for many people, but its world is static and slow.

In the end, the power to write code and change it without hiring a team of lawyers to parse agreements between companies ensures that the free software world will gradually win. Corporate organization provides money and stability, but in technology the race is usually won by the swiftest.

In the end, free software creates wealth, not cash, and wealth is much better than cash. You can't eat currency and you can't build a car with gold. Free software does things and accomplishes tasks without crashing into the blue screen of death. It empowers people. People who create it and share it are building real infrastructure that everyone can use. The corporations can try to control it with intellectual property laws. They can buy people, hornswoggle judges, and co-opt politicians, but they can't offer more than money.

In the end, information wants to be free. Corporations want to believe that software is a manufactured good like a car or a toaster. They want to pretend it is something that can be consumed only once. In reality, it is much closer to a joke, an idea, or gossip. Who's managed to control those?

For all of these reasons, this grand free-for-all, this great swapfest of software, this wonderful nonstop slumber party of cooperative knowledge creation, this incredible science project on steroids will grow in strange leaps and unexpected bounds until it swallows the world. There will be battles, there will be armies, there will be spies, there will be snakes, there will be court cases, there will be laws, there will be martyrs, there will be heroes, and there will be traitors. But in the end, information just wants to be free. That's what we love about it.

License: Free For All is Licensed under a Creative Commons License. This License permits non-commercial use of this work, so long as attribution is given. For more information about the license, visit

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