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The Rebel Code...
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- From: Jim Rebman <James.Rebman@Colorado.EDU>
- Date: Sun, 21 Feb 1999 17:34:21 -0700
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here's an article from the NY Times that appeared in today's Sunday Times
Magazine. It was sent to me by a friend (a new linux convert), but did not
include the URL. There is a slight formatting problem in one part, but it
is minimal. Enjoy.
February 21, 1999
The Rebel Code
By AMY HARMON
ne recent rainy afternoon at the home of Marcus Meissner in Erlangen,
Germany, Meissner's computer froze. It was the sort of routine headache
that most of us who rely on the alien machines endure on an almost daily
But Meissner, 25, didn't simpy reboot. Although by day a caretaker of
elderly patients at a state-run nursing home, by night he is a foot soldier
in the liberation army of Linux, an increasingly popular operating system
that is available free on the Internet. Meissner is part of a global
confederation of volunteers who are intent on ushering in a kind of
parallel silicon universe in which computers don't crash, programmers
readily share intellectual property and, incidentally, Microsoft Corp. has
no reason to exist, because Linux already belongs to everyone.
Meissner sent out an e-mail. Moments later in Budapest, a 26-year-old
called Mingo -- it is the habit of the wizards who tend to Linux to refer
to one another by only their e-mail avatars -- posted a fix. Gabriel, a
radio astronomer in southern Spain, countered the next day with a different
version. Then Petkan, a system administrator at a Bulgarian newspaper,
weighed in with a new approach. The point was not simply to mend the
program, but also to find the most elegant way of doing so. Of course
everyone knew that Torvalds, the California-based spider at the center of
this self-spinning web, would have the final say.
Torvalds is Linus Torvalds, the Finnish programmer who eight years ago, as
a 21-year-old student at the University of Helsinki, created Linux's
skeletal code and released it free on the Internet. Since then, he has
become something of a cult figure, regularly outranking celebrity
executives like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in Internet personality polls;
troll the Web and you can catch an audio clip of his uttering the correct
pronunciation of Linux (LINN-ucks) and see what he wore to last year's
Finnish President's Indepedence Day ball.
Named for both the physicist Linus Pauling and the Peanuts character,
Torvalds grew up in Helsinki in a family of journalists. His motivation for
starting Linux had as much to do with pragmatism as with intellectual
exploration. As an undergraduate, he couldn't afford the several thousand
dollars it would have cost to buy a commercial version of Unix -- the
operating system popular in the academic and corporate worlds -- so he
decided to write his own. Now, when programmers, hobbyists and other Linux
devotees ask him, as they do several dozen times a week, what part of the
program they should work on, he tells them to come back when they know.
Torvalds's moral and technical authority over Linux's evolution derives
from the countless hours he has spent juggling ideas and requests submitted
by the program's ever-growing network of acolytes. But it is part of the
power of Linux that when its prime mover opted for a clumsy solution to
Meissner's problem -- as even a cult hero occasionally does -- his
lieutenants did not shrink from correcting him. To liberate the world from
bad bugs, crashes and bloated software, the rebel programmers of Linux
strictly adhere to a meritocratic mantra: "The best code always wins."
t is hard to believe that the future of software lies in a haphazard
process of far-flung programmers e-mailing each other in the middle of the
night, but it just might. Beloved by techies for its remarkable ability to
run for months without crashing and for its compatibility with other
programs, Linux has mutated in recent months from geek fetish to a
dark-horse challenger to Microsoft Windows, the ubiquitous operating system
that has defined computing for a decade.
A formidable array of Microsoft's competitors, including I.B.M., Intel and
Oracle are lining up to back the orphan program. New companies like Red Hat
Software in Durham, N.C., are aiming to make money by providing technical
support for the software they can never own. In a bow to Linux's growing
stature, Netscape and Intel invested last fall in Red Hat. Even Microsoft
has made a show of trembling before Linux's rebel forces. In an internal
memo that somehow found its way onto the Internet, a Microsoft engineer
outlined the circumstances in which "Linux can win" and proposed strategies
for defeating the advantages of its new competitor. Microsoft has also
cited its fear of Linux in its antitrust battle with the Justice Department.
Still, some perspective is in order. Linux, which runs on only about 7
million computers worldwide, has a long, long way to go before it makes a
dent in Microsoft's 250-million-plus empire. And despite its growing
popularity, Linux is still too complicated for the average nonideologically
motivated computer user. But its significance is not solely as a product,
but also as an idea -- the embodiment of what amounts to a widely held
political belief among notoriously apolitical programmers that software
should be better.
"People have grown used to thinking of computers as unreliable, and it
doesn't have to be that way," Torvalds told me one night as we sat in his
office at his Santa Clara, Calif., home. "I don't mind Microsoft making
money. I mind them having a bad operating system." Torvalds lives in a
modest tract house, where he moved with his wife, Tove, the six-time karate
champion of Finland, two years ago to take a job at a secretive start-up
partly owned by Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft. The house is
filled with stuffed penguins, his favorite animal -- and not incidentally,
the Linux mascot -- for reasons he can't quite explain, except that they
seem "friendly." When he travels he makes every effort to visit the local
zoo. His favorite is in Singapore, because it has the most exotic animals
and the fewest cages per capita.
Each night, after tucking in his fair-haired daughters, Patricia, 2, and
Daniela, 10 months, Torvalds retreats to the orange light of his computer
to log several hours working on Linux.
Linux's most lasting legacy may be its role in legitimizing a radical model
of software development that has come to be known as "open source," in
which the "source code" -- the usually secreted DNA of a computer program
-- is freely released on the Internet for anyone to see, modify or
redistribute. The idea is akin to the notion of Coca-Cola publishing its
formula for Coke. Not surprisingly, it doesn't sit well with corporate
executives, who often spend tens of millions of dollars on programmers'
salaries alone. "Why should software be free?" asks Edward J. Zander, chief
operating officer of Sun Microsystems. "Why should I give away what I pay
millions of dollars to develop? Why doesn't General Motors give its cars
away for free? Why don't you give me your newspaper for free?"
'Think free as in free speech, not free beer,' says Richard Stallman, who
started the Free Software Foundation.
But by harnessing the collective wisdom of developers worldwide, Linux
partisans argue, a rigorous, informal peer review naturally emerges in
which the best innovations are ratified and adopted, resulting in a better
product. "I can't imagine having a problem and having to spend four hours
figuring it out instead of turning to the most knowledgeable person on the
Net who would know instantly how to solve it," says Marc Ewing, 29, who
started Red Hat in 1993. "It would be a terrible waste of time."
And the rapid growth of the Internet, which after all was created through
the open-source process, has made the approach ever more feasible by
broadening the universe of potential contributors and allowing for nearly
instant distribution of fine-tuned fixes.
"When I released Linux," Torvalds told me as we sat scanning hundreds of
e-mail messages he received that day, "I thought maybe one other person
would be interested in it." Among the faithful, the story of Torvalds
conjuring an operating system out of a blank screen has already taken on
the ring of legend. But the legend wants to correct the notion that he
solely wrote the software.
"The kernel" -- Linux's most vital code -- "is 1 percent of the entire
program," he says. "Of that 1 percent, I've written between 5 and 10
percent. I think the most important part is that I got it started. Then
people had something to concentrate on." Indeed, Torvalds places the number
of volunteers who regularly contribute to the "kernel" at about 1,000, and
thousands more have sent in pieces of code over the years.
"I didn't ask for this army of people to come to me," he says. "They come
because this is what they want to do." Of the six young men in four
countries who played in the e-mail round robin of fix-the-bug, for
instance, only Mingo is paid to work on Linux, and even his contribution
was not directly a part of his job.
But Torvalds readily concedes that Linux also owes much to the
groundbreaking work of Richard Stallman, a legendary hacker at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology who in 1984 founded the Free Software
Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of free
software. Living out of his office at M.I.T., Stallman devoted himself to
developing a free operating system. His thousands of lines of code make up
many of the software tools and utilities that are a part of Linux.
Still, there's no denying Torvalds's centrality to the Linux revolution.
According to Eric Raymond, an evangelist of the open-source movement,
programs like Linux are usually organized around one central wizard to whom
the others pay fealty. The perverse cross between anarchy and a cult of
personality, Raymond explains, comes from a natural tendency toward
efficiency. The leader maintains his place only with the consent of his
peers. In a self-published essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," which has
become a manifesto for Linux devotees, Raymond sees the cathedral as the
traditional mode of software development, and the bazaar as the preferable,
open mode. Elite programmers prefer the bazaar, he says, because it allows
them to operate in a "gift culture" in which prestige is the currency and
the rich developer is the one with the best reputation.
"Open-source software," or O.S.S., is really just a moniker invented by a
few marketing-savvy programmers, who decided last year that they needed a
term with public relations gloss for their preferred mode of developing
software. But the concept dates back to the days before the rise of the
personal computer, when hackers and hobbyists pushed the technology
envelope; at the time, they were more engaged in the pursuit of knowledge
than in corporate profits.
Predictably, computer-industry lore credits Microsoft's chairman, Bill
Gates, with heralding the end of that era with his "Open Letter to
Hobbyists," first published in 1976. "Most of you steal your software,"
Gates wrote, piqued at how the early computer tinkerers passed around
copies of any software they came across, including Microsoft's first
program, the Basic computer language for the Altair 8800. "One thing you do
. . . is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do
professional work for nothing?"
With the advent of the personal computer, a new mass market for software
arose, and with it, an industry renowned for its entrepreneurs and their
ability to create wealth. Previously, computer innovations had largely
arisen on university campuses, where the free exchange of ideas often
reigned. But big business, dependent on innovations for its profits, began
closely guarding its intellectual property, as software companies began
making money by selling upgrades to programs that consumers had already
purchased. There was nothing in it for a company offering fixes for free.
With the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman tried to recapture an
earlier atmosphere by developing a free operating system he called GNU. He
released it under a new software license known as "copyleft," which allowed
it to be endlessly copied or modified. One of Torvalds's first decisions
working on Linux was to release the source code under Stallman's general
public license. "I wanted people to be able to trust me without trusting me
personally," Torvalds says. "So even if I turn to the dark side, nobody can
take it over."
Stallman thinks that some of Linux's proponents have already sold out and
insists that the system's proper name is GNU-Linux. To him, the point of
free software isn't that it fosters superior technology, but that it's free
and urges the use of inferior free software over anything proprietary. "The
free-software movement is concerned primarily with strengthening civil
society," he says. "Think free as in free speech, not free beer."
It seems that many have. It is hard to discount Linux contributors' claims
that they do what they do for the love of it, given how much free time they
devote to perfecting the program. As Petko Manolov, 24, the system
administrator in Bulgaria who took part in the e-mail round robin, says:
"Linux is a very good operating system written by very good programmers.
And everybody can see the result. There are many reasons for this, but I
think the most important is that nobody is forced to code something he or
she does not believe is right. I had a bad experience in my previous job
with my boss, who made me program things I'm ashamed of."
Theodore Y. Ts'o, a researcher at M.I.T., speaks of Linux in spiritual
terms. "There's a quote from the New Testament," he says. "'By your works
you will know them.' That's what it's like. You take care of your code, and
when people report bugs you fix it. You are thereby known as a provider of
Donald Becker, who builds Linux machines for NASA, says, "We think we're
changing the world."
hether or not open-source development can work for all types of software is
unclear. But already other loose-knit bands of programmers are rising up in
the Linux mold, driven by personal interest or professional need for
software to be better or cheaper or just different from what commercial
companies are churning out. Venerable programs like Sendmail, which since
the beginning of the Internet has relayed virtually all e-mail to its
intended destination, was developed under an open-source model. More than
half of the Web servers on the Internet now run on Apache, an open-source
program started in 1995 by a group of Web masters unhappy with the
performance of the options on the market. Some companies, like Red Hat, are
actually paying programmers to do what they once did free. Donald Becker,
for instance, is paid by NASA, which used Linux to build a cluster of
personal computers that rank among the top 500 fastest in the world, for
about one-tenth the price of what an exotic supercomputer would cost.
More traditional software companies are also jumping on the bandwagon. In
December, Sun agreed to make its popular Java source code available to
developers who pay a license fee. The company is retaining
PricewaterhouseCoopers to audit, as Torvalds has for Linux, the process of
determining which new functions can be added to the language. Last winter,
in a move much celebrated by open-source proponents, Netscape released the
source code to its Navigator Web browser. Although the software was already
free to customers, the company is gambling that opening its code to
developers will give it an edge over Microsoft's competing browser,
Explorer, which comes free with Windows. And America Online, which plans to
acquire Netscape, has pledged to support its open-source initiatives.
Even Microsoft, in its memo assessing open-source software, concedes that
"Linux and other O.S.S. advocates are making a progressively more credible
argument that O.S.S. software is at least as robust -- if not more -- than
commercial alternatives. . . . The ability of the O.S.S. process to collect
and harness the collective I.Q. of thousands of individuals across the
Internet is simply amazing."
ut the corporations that are throwing their weight behind Linux and other
open-source projects are, for the most part, counting on the desire of
geeks to continue selflessly donating their time and expertise to the
betterment of the world's software.
Late last year in Atlanta at a Linux convention, which was impressively
organized by an ad-hoc group of Linux fans, Eric Raymond, the open-source
guru, elaborated on his notion of prestige as a motivating force. "None of
my peers are impressed by what kind of car I have," he said with twinkling
eyes. "They're impressed when I have a T-1 line in my house. This all goes
back to evolutionary biology where we're all competing for prestige because
we think it will get us babes."
There was a pause, as the almost entirely male audience -- some of whom
looked as if they hadn't started shaving -- considered the obvious
implications of this observation. Finally, someone called out: "Is it
working for anyone?" There came the resounding unanimous reply: "Nooo!"
But maybe the word just has yet to get out.
Torvalds, for his part, tends to absent himself from displays of Linux
activism, but he might have been proud of the one organized by the Silicon
Valley Linux User group in Palo Alto, Calif., in November. Microsoft was
holding a party to celebrate the opening of its new software-development
center. In a true geek protest, about 50 Linux stalwarts gathered to hand
out Linux CD's to Microsoft's guests as they entered. Wearing penguin
T-shirts bearing the slogan "Where Do You Want to Go Tomorrow?" and
carrying "Star Wars"-inspired signs that read, "Use the Source, Luke," the
group gathered at a coffee shop and was about to head over to the party
when two guys arrived from Microsoft.
Apparently they had been monitoring the group's Web site. "What you guys
are doing is touching a lot of people's hearts," one of them told the
group. "We'd love to sit down and talk."
The offers of pizza and beer were politely declined, at least until after
the event. But it was something of a crowning moment.
"Did you get that down?" one of the protesters wanted to know. "Microsoft
wants to buy us a beer."
These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times
has no control over their content or availability.
The Linux Organization
Linus Torvalds Documentation Project
Torvalds pronounces "Linux"
Red Hat Software
Free Software Foundation
Richard Stallman's home page
"Why Software Should Not Have Owners," article by Richard Stallman
Eric Raymond's home page
"The Cathedral and the Bazaar," article by Eric Raymond
Silicon Valley Linux User Group, organizers of the "Silicon Valley Tea Party"
Amy Harmon at firstname.lastname@example.org welcomes your comments and suggestions.
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Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
James A. Rebman
Technology - Enhanced Learning Laboratory
University of Colorado, Boulder
College of Engineering and Applied Science
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