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

3. Battle

The world where cash was king, greed was good, and money was power fell off its axis and stopped rotating, if only for a second, in January 1999. Microsoft, the great software giant and unstoppable engine of cash, was defending itself in a courtroom in Washington, D.C. The Department of Justice claimed that Microsoft was a monopoly and was using this power to cut off competitors. Microsoft denied it all and claimed that the world was hurling threat after competitive threat its way. They weren't a monopoly, they were just a very competitive company that managed to withstand the slings and arrows of other equally ruthless competitors out to steal its market share.

The trial quickly turned into everyone's worst nightmare as the lawyers, the economists, and the programmers filled the courtroom with a thick mixture of technobabble and legal speak. On the stands, the computer nerds spewed out three-letter acronyms (TLAs) as they talked about creating operating systems. Afterward, the legal nerds started slicing them up into one-letter acronyms and testing to see just which of the three letters was really the one that committed the crime. Then the economists came forward and offered their theories on just when a monopoly is a monopoly. Were three letters working in collusion enough? What about two? Everyone in the courtroom began to dread spending the day cooped up in a small room as Microsoft tried to deny what was obvious to practically everyone.

In the fall and early winter of 1998 and 1999, the Department of Justice had presented its witnesses, who explained how Microsoft had slanted contracts, tweaked software, and twisted arms to ensure that it and it alone got the lion's share of the computer business. Many watching the trial soon developed the opinion that Microsoft had adopted a mixture of tactics from the schoolyard bully, the local mob boss, and the mother from hell. The Department of Justice trotted out a number of witnesses who produced ample evidence that suggested the computer customers of the world will buy Microsoft products unless Microsoft decides otherwise. Competitors must be punished.

By January, the journalists covering the trial were quietly complaining about this endless waste of time. The Department of Justice's case was so compelling that they saw the whole trial as just a delay in what would eventually come to be a ruling that would somehow split or shackle Microsoft.

But Microsoft wasn't going to be bullied or pushed into splitting up. The trial allowed them to present their side of the story, and they had one ready. Sure, everyone seemed to use Microsoft products, but that was because they were great. It wasn't because there weren't any competitors, but because the competitors just weren't good enough.

In the middle of January, Richard Schmalensee, the dean of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took the stand to defend Microsoft. Schmalensee had worked for the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice as an economist who examined the marketplace and the effects of anti-competitive behavior. He studied how monopolies behave, and to him Microsoft had no monopoly power. Now, he was being paid handsomely by Microsoft as an expert witness to repeat this view in court.

Schmalensee's argument was simple: competitors are popping up all over the place. Microsoft, he said in his direct testimony, “is in a constant struggle for competitive survival. That struggle--the race to win and the victor's perpetual fear of being displaced--is the source of competitive vitality in the microcomputer software industry.”

Schmalensee even had a few competitors ready. “The iMac clearly competes directly and fiercely with Intel-compatible computers running Windows,” he said without mentioning that Microsoft had bailed out Apple several months before with hundreds of millions of dollars in an investment. When Steve Jobs, the iCEO of Apple, announced the deal to a crowd of Mac lovers, the crowd booed. Jobs quieted them and tried to argue that the days of stiff competition with Microsoft were over. The scene did such a good job of capturing the total domination of Microsoft that the television movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley used it to illustrate how Bill Gates had won all of the marbles.

After the announcement of the investment, Apple began shipping Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser as the preferred browser on its machines. Microsoft's competitor Netscape became just a bit harder to find on the iMac. After that deal, Steve Jobs even began making statements that the old sworn enemies, Apple and Microsoft, were now more partners than competitors. Schmalensee didn't focus on this facet of Apple's new attitude toward competition.

Next, Schmalensee trotted out BeOS, an operating system made by Be, a small company with about 100 employees run by ex-Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée. This company had attracted millions of dollars in funding, he said, and some people really liked it. That made it a competitor.

Schmalensee didn't mention that Be had trouble giving away the BeOS operating system. Gassée approached a number of PC manufacturers to see if they would include BeOS on their machines and give users the chance to switch between two operating systems. Gassée found, to no one's real surprise, that Microsoft's contracts with manufacturers made it difficult, if not practically impossible, to get BeOS in customers' hands. Microsoft controlled much of what the user got to see and insisted on almost total control over the viewer's experience. Schmalensee didn't mention these details in his testimony. BeOS may have been as locked up as a prisoner in a windowless cell in a stone-walled asylum on an island in the middle of the ocean, but BeOS was still a competitor for the love of the fair maiden.

The last competitor, though, was the most surprising to everyone. Schmalensee saw Linux, a program given away for free, as a big potential competitor. When he said Linux, he really meant an entire collection of programs known as “open source” software. These were written by a loose-knit group of programmers who shared all of the source code to the software over the Internet.

Open source software floated around the Internet controlled by a variety of licenses with names like the GNU General Public License (GPL). To say that the software was “controlled” by the license is a bit of a stretch. If anything, the licenses were deliberately worded to prohibit control. The GNU GPL, for instance, let users modify the program and give away their own versions. The license did more to enforce sharing of all the source code than it did to control or constrain. It was more an anti-license than anything else, and its author, Richard Stallman, often called it a “copyleft.”

Schmalensee didn't mention that most people thought of Linux as a strange tool created and used by hackers in dark rooms lit by computer monitors. He didn't mention that many people had trouble getting Linux to work with their computers. He forgot to mention that Linux manuals came with subheads like “Disk Druid-like 'fstab editor' available.” He didn't delve into the fact that for many of the developers, Linux was just a hobby they dabbled with when there was nothing interesting on television. And he certainly didn't mention that most people thought the whole Linux project was the work of a mad genius and his weirdo disciples who still hadn't caught on to the fact that the Soviet Union had already failed big-time. The Linux folks actually thought sharing would make the world a better place. Fat-cat programmers who spent their stock-option riches on Porsches and balsamic vinegar laughed at moments like this.

Schmalensee didn't mention these facts. He just offered Linux as an alternative to Windows and said that computer manufacturers might switch to it at any time. Poof. Therefore, Microsoft had competitors. At the trial, the discourse quickly broke down into an argument over what is really a worthy competitor and what isn't. Were there enough applications available for Linux or the Mac? What qualifies as “enough”? Were these really worthy?

Under cross-examination, Schmalensee explained that he wasn't holding up the Mac, BeOS, or Linux as competitors who were going to take over 50 percent of the marketplace. He merely argued that their existence proved that the barriers produced by the so-called Microsoft monopoly weren't that strong. If rational people were investing in creating companies like BeOS, then Microsoft's power wasn't absolute.

Afterward, most people quickly made up their minds. Everyone had heard about the Macintosh and knew that back then conventional wisdom dictated that it would soon fail. But most people didn't know anything about BeOS or Linux. How could a company be a competitor if no one had heard of it? Apple and Microsoft had TV commercials. BeOS, at least, had a charismatic chairman. There was no Linux pitchman, no Linux jingle, and no Linux 30-second spot in major media. At the time, only the best-funded projects in the Linux community had enough money to buy spots on late-night community-access cable television. How could someone without money compete with a company that hired the Rolling Stones to pump excitement into a product launch?

When people heard that Microsoft was offering a free product as a worthy competitor, they began to laugh even louder at the company's chutzpah. Wasn't money the whole reason the country was having a trial? Weren't computer programmers in such demand that many companies couldn't hire as many as they needed, no matter how high the salary? How could Microsoft believe that anyone would buy the supposition that a bunch of pseudo-communist nerds living in their weird techno-utopia where all the software was free would ever come up with software that could compete with the richest company on earth? At first glance, it looked as if Microsoft's case was sinking so low that it had to resort to laughable strategies. It was as if General Motors were to tell the world “We shouldn't have to worry about fixing cars that pollute because a collective of hippies in Ithaca, New York, is refurbishing old bicycles and giving them away for free.” It was as if Exxon waved away the problems of sinking oil tankers by explaining that folksingers had written a really neat ballad for teaching birds and otters to lick themselves clean after an oil spill. If no one charged money for Linux, then it was probably because it wasn't worth buying.

But as everyone began looking a bit deeper, they began to see that Linux was being taken seriously in some parts of the world. Many web servers, it turned out, were already running on Linux or another free cousin known as FreeBSD. A free webserving tool known as Apache had controlled more than 50 percent of the web servers for some time, and it was gradually beating out Microsoft products that cost thousands of dollars. Many of the web servers ran Apache on top of a Linux or a FreeBSD machine and got the job done. The software worked well, and the nonexistent price made it easy to choose.

Linux was also winning over some of the world's most serious physicists, weapons designers, biologists, and hard-core scientists. Some of the nation's top labs had wired together clusters of cheap PCs and turned them into supercomputers that were highly competitive with the best machines on the market. One upstart company started offering “supercomputers” for $3,000. These machines used Linux to keep the data flowing while the racks of computers plugged and chugged their way for hours on complicated simulations.

There were other indications. Linux users bragged that their system rarely crashed. Some claimed to have machines that had been running for a year or more without a problem. Microsoft (and Apple) users, on the other hand, had grown used to frequent crashes. The “Blue Screen of Death” that appears on Windows users' monitors when something goes irretrievably wrong is the butt of many jokes.

Linux users also bragged about the quality of their desktop interface. Most of the uninitiated thought of Linux as a hacker's system built for nerds. Yet recently two very good operating shells called GNOME and KDE had taken hold. Both offered the user an environment that looked just like Windows but was better. Linux hackers started bragging that they were able to equip their girlfriends, mothers, and friends with Linux boxes without grief. Some people with little computer experience were adopting Linux with little trouble.

Building websites and supercomputers is not an easy task, and it is often done in back rooms out of the sight of most people. When people began realizing that the free software hippies had slowly managed to take over a large chunk of the web server and supercomputing world, they realized that perhaps Microsoft's claim was viable. Web servers and supercomputers are machines built and run by serious folks with bosses who want something in return for handing out paychecks. They aren't just toys sitting around the garage.

If these free software guys had conquered such serious arenas, maybe they could handle the office and the desktop. If the free software world had created something usable by the programmers' mothers, then maybe they were viable competitors. Maybe Microsoft was right.

3.1. Sleeping In

While Microsoft focused its eyes and ears upon Washington, one of its biggest competitors was sleeping late. When Richard Schmalensee was prepping to take the stand in Washington, D.C., to defend Microsoft's outrageous fortune against the slings and arrows of a government inquisition, Alan Cox was still sleeping in. He didn't get up until 2:00 PM. at his home in Swansea on the south coast of Wales. This isn't too odd for him. His wife, Telsa, grouses frequently that it's impossible to get him moving each morning without a dose of Jolt Cola, the kind that's overloaded with caffeine.

The night before, Cox and his wife went to see The Mask of Zorro, the latest movie that describes how Don Diego de la Vega assumed the secret identity of Zorro to free the Mexican people from the tyranny of Don Rafael Montero. In this version, Don Diego, played by Anthony Hopkins, chooses an orphan, Alejandro Murrieta, played by Antonio Banderas, and teaches him to be the next Zorro so the fight can continue. Its theme resonates with writers of open source software: a small band of talented, passionate warriors warding off the evil oppressor.

Cox keeps an open diary and posts the entries on the web. “It's a nice looking film, with some great stunts and character play,” he wrote, but

You could, however, have fitted the plot, including all the twists, on the back of a matchbox. That made it feel a bit ponderous so it only got a 6 out of 10 even though I'm feeling extremely smug because I spotted one of the errors in the film while watching it not by consulting imdb later.

By the imdb, he meant the Internet Movie Database, which is one of the most complete listings of film credits, summaries, and glitches available on the Net. Users on the Internet write in with their own reviews and plot synopses, which the database dutifully catalogs and makes available to everyone. It's a reference book with thousands of authors.

In this case, the big glitch in the film is the fact that one of the train gauges uses the metric system. Mexico converted to this system in 1860, but the film is set in 1841. Whoops. Busted.

Telsa wrote in her diary, which she also posts to the Net under the title “The More Accurate Diary. Really.”

Dragged him to cinema to see Zorro. I should have remembered he'd done some fencing and found something different. He also claimed he'd spotted a really obscure error. I checked afterward on IMDB, and was amazed. How did he see this?

Cox is a big bear of a man who wears a long, brown wizard's beard. He has an agile, analytic mind that constantly picks apart a system and probes it for weaknesses. If he's playing a game, he plays until he finds a trick or a loophole that will give him the winning edge. If he's working around the house, he often ends up meddling with things until he fixes and improves them. Of course, he also often breaks them. His wife loves to complain about the bangs and crashes that come from his home office, where he often works until 6:30 in the morning.

To his wife, this crashing, banging, and late-night hacking is the source of the halfhearted grousing inherent in every marriage. She obviously loves both his idiosyncrasies and the opportunity to discuss just how strange they can be. In January, Telsa was trying to find a way to automate her coffeepot by hooking it up to her computer.

She wrote in her diary,

Alan is reluctant to get involved with any attempt to make a coffee-maker switch on via the computer now because he seems to think I will eventually switch it on with no water in and start a fire. I'm not the one who welded tinned spaghetti to the non-stick saucepan. Or set the wok on fire. More than once. Once with fifteen guests in the house. But there we are.

To the rest of the world, this urge to putter and fiddle with machines is more than a source of marital comedy. Cox is one of the great threats to the continued dominance of Microsoft, despite the fact that he found a way to weld spaghetti to a nonstick pan. He is one of the core developers who help maintain the Linux kernel. In other words, he's one of the group of programmers who helps guide the development of the Linux operating system, the one Richard Schmalensee feels is such a threat to Microsoft. Cox is one of the few people whom Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, trusts to make important decisions about future directions. Cox is an expert on the networking guts of the system and is responsible for making sure that most of the new ideas that people suggest for Linux are considered carefully and integrated correctly. Torvalds defers to Cox on many matters about how Linux-based computers talk with other computers over a network. Cox works long and hard to find efficient ways for Linux to juggle multiple connections without slowing down or deadlocking.

The group that works with Cox and Torvalds operates with no official structure. Millions of people use Linux to keep their computers running, and all of them have copies of the source code. In the 1980s, most companies began keeping the source code to their software as private as possible because they worried that a competitor might come along and steal the ideas the source spelled out. The source code, which is written in languages like C, Java, FORTRAN, BASIC, or Pascal, is meant to be read by programmers. Most companies didn't want other programmers understanding too much about the guts of their software. Information is power, and the companies instinctively played their cards close to their chests.

When Linus Torvalds first started writing Linux in 1991, however, he decided to give away the operating system for free. He included all the source code because he wanted others to read it, comment upon it, and perhaps improve it. His decision was as much a radical break from standard programming procedure as a practical decision. He was a poor student at the time, and this operating system was merely a hobby. If he had tried to sell it, he wouldn't have gotten anything for it. He certainly had no money to build a company that could polish the software and market it. So he just sent out copies over the Internet.

Sharing software had already been endorsed by Richard Stallman, a legendary programmer from MIT who believed that keeping source code private was a sin and a crime against humanity. A programmer who shares the source code lets others learn, and those others can contribute their ideas back into the mix. Closed source code leaves users frustrated because they can't learn about the software or fix any bugs. Stallman broke away from MIT in 1984 when he founded the Free Software Foundation. This became the organization that sponsored Stallman's grand project to free source code, a project he called GNU. In the 1980s, Stallman created very advanced tools like the GNU Emacs text editor, which people could use to write programs and articles. Others donated their work and the GNU project soon included a wide range of tools, utilities, and games. All of them were distributed for free.

Torvalds looked at Stallman and decided to follow his lead with open source code. Torvalds's free software began to attract people who liked to play around with technology. Some just glanced at it. Others messed around for a few hours. Free is a powerful incentive. It doesn't let money, credit cards, purchase orders, and the boss's approval get in the way of curiosity. A few, like Alan Cox, had such a good time taking apart an operating system that they stayed on and began contributing back to the project.

In time, more and more people like Alan Cox discovered Torvalds's little project on the Net. Some slept late. Others kept normal hours and worked in offices. Some just found bugs. Others fixed the bugs. Still others added new features that they wanted. Slowly, the operating system grew from a toy that satisfied the curiosity of computer scientists into a usable tool that powers supercomputers, web servers, and millions of other machines around the world.

Today, about a thousand people regularly work with people like Alan Cox on the development of the Linux kernel, the official name for the part of the operating system that Torvalds started writing back in 1991. That may not be an accurate estimate because many people check in for a few weeks when a project requires their participation. Some follow everything, but most people are just interested in little corners. Many other programmers have contributed various pieces of software such as word processors or spreadsheets. All of these are bundled together into packages that are often called plain Linux or GNU/Linux and shipped by companies like Red Hat or more ad hoc groups like Debian. 1 While Torvalds only wrote the core kernel, people use his name, Linux, to stand for a whole body of software written by thousands of others. It's not exactly fair, but most let it slide. If there hadn't been the Linux kernel, the users wouldn't have the ability to run software on a completely free system. The free software would need to interact with something from Microsoft, Apple, or IBM. Of course, if it weren't for all of the other free software from Berkeley, the GNU project, and thousands of other garages around the world, there would be little for the Linux kernel to do.

Officially, Linus Torvalds is the final arbiter for the kernel and the one who makes the final decisions about new features. In practice, the group runs like a loosely knit “ad-hocracy.” Some people might care about a particular feature like the ability to interface with Macintoshes, and they write special code that makes this task easier. Others who run really big databases may want larger file systems that can store more information without limits.

All of these people work at their own pace. Some work in their homes, like Alan Cox. Some work in university labs. Others work for businesses that use Linux and encourage their programmers to plug away so it serves their needs.

The team is united by mailing lists. The Linux Kernel mailing list hooks up Cox in Britain, Torvalds in Silicon Valley, and the others around the globe. They post notes to the list and discuss ideas. Sometimes verbal fights break out, and sometimes everyone agrees. Sometimes people light a candle by actually writing new code to make the kernel better, and other times they just curse the darkness.

Cox is now one of several people responsible for coordinating the addition of new code. He tests it for compatibility and guides Linux authors to make sure they're working together optimally. In essence, he tests every piece of incoming software to make sure all of the gauges work with the right system of measurement so there will be no glitches. He tries to remove the incompatibilities that marred Zorro.

Often, others will duplicate Cox's work. Some new features are very popular and have many cooks minding the stew. The technology for speeding up computers with multiple CPUs lets each computer harness the extra power, so many list members test it frequently. They want the fastest machines they can get, and smoothing the flow of data between the CPUs is the best way to let the machines cooperate.

Other features are not so popular, and they're tackled by the people who need the features. Some people want to hook their Linux boxes up to Macintoshes. Doing that smoothly can require some work in the kernel. Others may want to add special code to enable a special device like a high-speed camera or a strange type of disk drive. These groups often work on their own but coordinate their solutions with the main crowd. Ideally, they'll be able to come up with some patches that solve their problem without breaking some other part of the system.

It's a very social and political process that unrolls in slow motion through e-mail messages. One person makes a suggestion. Others may agree. Someone may squabble with the idea because it seems inelegant, sloppy, or, worst of all, dangerous. After some time, a rough consensus evolves. Easy problems can be solved in days or even minutes, but complicated decisions can wait as the debate rages for years.

Each day, Cox and his virtual colleagues pore through the lists trying to figure out how to make Linux better, faster, and more usable. Sometimes they skip out to watch a movie. Sometimes they go for hikes. But one thing they don't do is spend months huddled in conference rooms trying to come up with legal arguments. Until recently, the Linux folks didn't have money for lawyers, and that means they didn't get sidetracked by figuring out how to get big and powerful people like Richard Schmalensee to tell a court that there's no monopoly in the computer operating system business.

3.2. Suits Against Hackers

Schmalensee and Cox couldn't be more different from each other. One is a career technocrat who moves easily between the government and MIT. The other is what used to be known as an absentminded professor--the kind who works when he's really interested in a problem. It just so happens that Cox is pretty intrigued with building a better operating system than the various editions of Windows that form the basis of Microsoft's domination of the computer industry.

The battle between Linux and Microsoft is lining up to be the classic fight between the people like Schmalensee and the people like Cox. On one side are the armies of lawyers, lobbyists, salesmen, and expensive executives who are armed with patents, lawsuits, and legislation. They are skilled at moving the levers of power until the gears line up just right and billions of dollars pour into their pockets. They know how to schmooze, toady, beg, or even threaten until they wear the mantle of authority and command the piety and devotion of the world. People buy Microsoft because it's “the standard.” No one decreed this, but somehow it has come to be.

On the other side are a bunch of guys who just like playing with computers and will do anything to take them apart. They're not like the guy in the song by John Mellencamp who sings “I fight authority and authority always wins.” Some might have an attitude, but most just want to look at the insides of their computers and rearrange them to hook up to coffee machines or networks. They want to fidget with the guts of their machines. If they weld some spaghetti to the insides, so be it.

Normally, these battles between the suits and the geeks don't threaten the established order. There are university students around the world building solar-powered cars, but they don't actually pose a threat to the oil or auto industries. “21,” a restaurant in New York, makes a great hamburger, but they're not going to put McDonald's out of business. The experimentalists and the perfectionists don't usually knock heads with the corporations who depend upon world domination for their profits. Except when it comes to software.

Software is different from cars or hamburgers. Once someone writes the source code, copying the source costs next to nothing. That makes it much easier for tinkerers like Cox to have a global effect. If Cox, Stallman, Torvalds, and his chums just happen to luck upon something that's better than Microsoft, then the rest of the world can share their invention for next to nothing. That's what makes Cox, Torvalds, and their buddies a credible threat no matter how often they sleep late.

It's easy to get high off of the idea alone. A few guys sleeping late and working in bedrooms aren't supposed to catch up to a cash engine like Microsoft. They aren't supposed to create a webserving engine that controls more than half of the web. They aren't supposed to create a graphical user interface for drawing windows and icons on the screen that's much better than Windows. They aren't supposed to create supercomputers with sticker prices of $3,000. Money isn't supposed to lose.

Of course, the folks who are working on free software projects have advantages that money can't buy. These programmers don't need lawyers to create licenses, negotiate contracts, or argue over terms. Their software is free, and lawyers lose interest pretty quickly when there's no money around. The free software guys don't need to scrutinize advertising copy. Anyone can download the software and just try it. The programmers also don't need to sit in the corner when their computer crashes and complain about the idiot who wrote the software. Anyone can read the source code and fix the glitches.

The folks in the free source software world are, in other words, grooving on freedom. They're high on the original American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The founders of the United States of America didn't set out to create a wealthy country where citizens spent their days worrying whether they would be able to afford new sport utility vehicles when the stock options were vested. The founders just wanted to secure the blessings of liberty for posterity. Somehow, the wealth followed.

This beautiful story is easy to embrace: a group of people started out swapping cool software on the Net and ended up discovering that their free sharing created better software than what a corporation could produce with a mountain of cash.

The programmers found that unrestricted cooperation made it easy for everyone to contribute. No price tags kept others away. No stereotypes or biases excluded anyone. The software and the source code were on the Net for anyone to read.

Wide-open cooperation also turned out to be wide-open competition because the best software won the greatest attention. The corporate weasels with the ear of the president could not stop a free source software project from shipping. No reorganization or downsizing could stop people from working on free software if they wanted to hack. The freedom to create was more powerful than money.

That's an idyllic picture, and the early success of Linux, FreeBSD, and other free packages makes it tempting to think that the success will build. Today, open source servers power more than 50 percent of the web servers on the Internet, and that is no small accomplishment. Getting thousands, if not millions, of programmers to work together is quite amazing given how quirky programmers can be. The ease of copying makes it possible to think that Alan Cox could get up late and still move the world.

But the 1960s were also an allegedly idyllic time when peace, love, and sharing were going to create a beautiful planet where everyone gave to everyone else in an eternal golden braid of mutual respect and caring. Everyone assumed that the same spirit that so quickly and easily permeated the college campuses and lovefests in the parks was bound to sweep the world. The communes were really happening, man. But somehow, the groovy beat never caught on beyond those small nests of easy caring and giving. Somehow, the folks started dropping back in, getting real jobs, taking on real mortgages, and buying back into the world where money was king.

Over the years, the same sad ending has befallen many communes, utopian visions, and hypnotic vibes. Freedom is great. It allows brilliant inventors to work independently of the wheels of power. But capital is another powerful beast that drives innovation. The great communes often failed because they never converted their hard work into money, making it difficult for them to save and invest. Giving things away may be, like, really groovy, but it doesn't build a nest egg.

Right now, the free software movement stands at a crucial moment in its history. In the past, a culture of giving and wide-open sharing let thousands of programmers build a great operating system that was, in many ways, better than anything coming from the best companies. Many folks began working on Linux, FreeBSD, and thousands of other projects as hobbies, but now they're waking up to find IBM, HewlettPackard, Apple, and all the other big boys pounding on their door. If the kids could create something as nice as Linux, everyone began to wonder whether these kids really had enough good stuff to go the distance and last nine innings against the greatest power hitters around.

Perhaps the free software movement will just grow faster and better as more people hop on board. More users mean more eyes looking for bugs. More users mean more programmers writing new source code for new features. More is better.

On the other hand, sharing may be neat, but can it beat the power of capital? Microsoft's employees may be just serfs motivated by the dream that someday their meager stock options will be worth enough to retire upon, but they have a huge pile of cash driving them forward. This capital can be shifted very quickly. If Bill Gates wants 1,000 programmers to create something, he can wave his hand. If he wants to buy 1,000 computers, it takes him a second. That's the power of capital.

Linus Torvalds may be on the cover of magazines, but he can't do anything with the wave of a hand. He must charm and cajole the thousands of folks on the Linux mailing list to make a change. Many of the free software projects may generate great code, but they have to beg for computers. The programmers might even surprise him and come up with an even better solution. They've done it in the past. But no money means that no one has to do what anyone says.

In the past, the free software movement was like the movies in which Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland put on a great show in the barn. That part won't change. Cool kids with a dream will still be spinning up great programs that will be wonderful gifts for the world.

But shows that are charming and fresh in a barn can become thin and weak on a big stage on Broadway. The glitches and raw functionality of Linux and free software don't seem too bad if you know that they're built by kids in their spare time. Building real tools for real companies, moms, police stations, and serious users everywhere is another matter. Everyone may be hoping that sharing, caring, and curiosity are enough, but no one knows for certain. Maybe capital will end up winning. Maybe it won't. It's freedom versus assurance; it's wide-open sharing versus stock options; it's cooperation versus intimidation; it's the geeks versus the suits, all in one knockdown, hack-till-you-drop, winner-take-everything fight.

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