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

5. Image

Consider this picture: Microsoft is a megalith built by one man with a towering ego. It may not be fair to lump all of the serfs in the corporate cubicle farms in Redmond into one big army of automatons, but it sure conjures a striking image that isn't altogether inaccurate. Microsoft employees are fiercely loyal and often more dedicated to the cause than the average worker bee. Bill Gates built the company from scratch with the help of several college friends, and this group maintains tight control over all parts of the empire. The flavor of the organization is set by one man with the mind and the ego to micromanage it all.

Now consider the image of the members of the free software revolution. Practically every newspaper article and colorful feature describing the group talks about a ragtag army of scruffy, bearded programmers who are just a bit too pale from spending their days in front of a computer screen. The writers love to conjure up a picture of a group that looks like it came stumbling out of some dystopian fantasy movie like Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog. They're the outsiders. They're a tightly knit band of rebel outcasts who are planning to free the people from their Microsoft slavery and return to the people the power usurped by Mr. Gates. What do they want? Freedom! When do they want it? Now!

There's only one problem with this tidy, Hollywood-ready image: it's far from true. While Microsoft is one big corporation with reins of control that keep everyone in line, there is no strong or even weak organization that binds the world of open source software. The movement, if it could be called that, is comprised of individuals, each one free to do whatever he wants with the software. That's the point: no more shackles. No more corporate hegemony. Just pure source code that runs fast, clean, and light, straight through the night.

This doesn't mean that the image is all wrong. Some of the luminaries like Richard Stallman and Alan Cox have been known to sport long, Rip van Winkle-grade beards. Some folks are strikingly pale. A few could bathe a bit more frequently. Caffeine is a bit too popular with them. Some people look as if they were targets for derision by the idiots on the high school football team.

But there are many counterexamples. Linus Torvalds drives a Pontiac and lives in a respectable home with a wife and two children. He works during the day at a big company and spends his evenings shopping and doing errands. His life would be perfectly categorized as late 1950s sitcom if his wife, Tove, weren't a former Finnish karate champion and trucks weren't driving up to his house to deliver top-of-the-line computers like a 200-pound monstrosity with four Xeon processors. He told VAR Business, “A large truck brought it to our house and the driver was really confused. He said, 'You don't have a loading dock?'” On second thought, those are the kind of shenanigans that drive most sitcoms.

There's no easy way to classify the many free source code contributors. Many have children, but many don't. Some don't mention them, some slip in references to them, and others parade them around with pride. Some are married, some are not. Some are openly gay. Some exist in sort of a presexual utopia of early teenage boyhood. Some of them are still in their early teens. Some aren't.

Some contributors are fairly described as “ragtag,” but many aren't. Many are corporate droids who work in cubicle farms during the day and create free software projects at night. Some work at banks. Some work on databases for human resource departments. Some build websites. Everyone has a day job, and many keep themselves clean and ready to be promoted to the next level. Bruce Perens, one of the leaders of the Debian group, used to work at the Silicon Valley glitz factory Pixar and helped write some of the software that created the hit Toy Story.

Still, he told me, “At the time Toy Story was coming out, there was a space shuttle flying with the Debian GNU/Linux distribution on it controlling a biological experiment. People would say 'Are you proud of working at Pixar?' and then I would say my hobby software was running on the space shuttle now. That was a turnaround point when I realized that Linux might become my career.”

In fact, it's not exactly fair to categorize many of the free software programmers as a loosely knit band of rebel programmers out to destroy Microsoft. It's a great image that feeds the media's need to highlight conflict, but it's not exactly true. The free software movement began long before Microsoft was a household word. Richard Stallman wrote his manifesto setting out some of the precepts in 1984. He was careful to push the notion that programmers always used to share the source code to software until the 1980s, when corporations began to develop the shrink-wrapped software business. In the olden days of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, programmers always shared. While Stallman has been known to flip his middle finger out at the name Bill Gates for the reporting pleasure of a writer from Salon magazine, he's not after Microsoft per se. He just wants to return computing to the good old days when the source was free and sharing was possible.

The same holds for most of the other programmers. Some contribute source code because it helps them with their day job. Some stay up all night writing code because they're obsessed. Some consider it an act of charity, a kind of noblesse oblige. Some want to fix bugs that bother them. Some want fame, glory, and the respect of all other computer programmers. There are thousands of reasons why new open source software gets written, and very few of them have anything to do with Microsoft.

In fact, it's a bad idea to see the free software revolution as having much to do with Microsoft. Even if Linux, FreeBSD, and other free software packages win, Microsoft will probably continue to fly along quite happily in much the same way that IBM continues to thrive even after losing the belt of the Heavyweight Computing Champion of the World to Microsoft. Anyone who spends his or her time focused on the image of a ragtag band of ruffians and orphans battling the Microsoft leviathan is bound to miss the real story.

The fight is really just a by-product of the coming of age of the information business. The computer trade is rapidly maturing and turning into a service industry. In the past, the manufacture of computers and software took place on assembly lines and in cubicle farms. People bought shrink-wrapped items from racks. These were items that were manufactured. Now both computers and software are turning into dirtcheap commodities whose only source of profit is customization and handholding. The real money now is in service.

Along the way, the free software visionaries stumbled onto a curious fact. They could give away software, and people would give back improvements to it. Software cost practically nothing to duplicate, so it wasn't that hard to just give it away after it was written. At first, this was sort of a pseudo-communist thing to do, but today it seems like a brilliant business decision. If the software is turning into a commodity with a price falling toward zero, why not go all the way and gain whatever you can by freely sharing the code? The profits could come by selling services like programming and education. The revolution isn't about defeating Microsoft; it's just a change in the whole way the world buys and uses computers.

The revolution is also the latest episode in the battle between the programmers and the suits. In a sense, it's a battle for the hearts and minds of the people who are smart enough to create software for the world. The programmers want to write challenging tools that impress their friends. The suits want to rein in programmers and channel their energy toward putting more money in the pockets of the corporation. The suits hope to keep programmers devoted by giving them fat paychecks, but it's not clear that programmers really want the cash. The freedom to do whatever you want with source code is intrinsically rewarding. The suits want to keep software under lock and key so they can sell it and maximize revenues. The free software revolution is really about a bunch of programmers saying, “Screw the cash. I really want the source code.”

The revolution is also about defining wealth in cyberspace. Microsoft promises to build neat tools that will help us get wherever we want to go today--if we keep writing larger and larger checks. The open source movement promises software with practically no limitations. Which is a better deal? The Microsoft millionaires probably believe in proprietary software and suggest that the company wouldn't have succeeded as it did if it didn't provide something society wanted. They created good things, and the people rewarded them.

But the open source movement has also created great software that many think is better than anything Microsoft has built. Is society better off with a computer infrastructure controlled by a big corporate machine driven by cash? Or does sharing the source code create better software? Are we at a point where money is not the best vehicle for lubricating the engines of societal advancement? Many in the free software world are pondering these questions.

Anyone who tunes in to the battle between Microsoft and the world expecting to see a good old-fashioned fight for marketplace domination is going to miss the real excitement. Sure, Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, Mach, and the thousands of other free software projects are going to come out swinging. Microsoft is going to counterpunch with thousands of patents defended by armies of lawyers. Some of the programmers might even be a bit weird, and a few will be entitled to wear the adjective “ragtag.” But the real revolution has nothing to do with whether Bill Gates keeps his title as King of the Hill. It has nothing to do with whether the programmers stay up late and work in the nude. It has nothing to do with poor grooming, extravagant beards, Coke-bottle glasses, black trench coats, or any of the other stereotypes that fuel the media's image.

It's about the gradual commodification of software and hardware. It's about the need for freedom and the quest to create cool software. It's about a world just discovering how much can be accomplished when information can be duplicated for next to nothing.

The real struggle is finding out how long society can keep hanging ten toes off the edge of the board as we get carried by the wave of freedom. Is there enough energy in the wave and enough grace in society to ride it all the way to the shore? Or will something wicked, something evil, or something sloppy come along and mess it up?

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

SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022