Larry McVoy,an avid programmer,proto-academic,and developer
of the BitKeeper toolkit,likes to find fault with the model.It isn’t that
he doesn’t like sharing source code,it’s just that he isn’t wealthy enough
to take on free software projects.“We need to find a way for people to
develop free software and pay their mortgages and raise a family,”he
“If you look closely,”he says,“there really isn’t a bazaar.At the top it’s
always a one-person cathedral.It’s either Linus,Stallman,or someone
else.”That is,the myth of a bazaar as a wide-open,free-for-all of com-
petition isn’t exactly true.Sure,everyone can download the source code,
diddle with it,and make suggestions,but at the end of the day it mat-
ters what Torvalds,Stallman,or someone else says.There is always a
great architect of Chartres lording it over his domain.
Part of this problem is the success of Raymond’s metaphor.He said he
just wanted to give the community some tools to understand the success
of Linux and reason about it.But his two visions of a cathedral and a
bazaar had such a clarity that people concentrated more on dividing the
world into cathedrals and bazaars.In reality,there’s a great deal of blend-
ing in between.The most efficient bazaars today are the suburban malls
that have one management company building the site,leasing the stores,
and creating a unified experience.Downtown shopping areas often failed
because there was always one shop owner who could ruin an entire block
by putting in a store that sold pornography.On the other side,religion has
always been something of a bazaar.Martin Luther effectively split apart
Christianity by introducing competition.Even within denominations,
different parishes fight for the hearts and souls of people.
The same blurring holds true for the world of open source software.
The Linux kernel,for instance,contains many thousands of lines of
source code.Some put the number at 500,000.A few talented folks like
Alan Cox or Linus Torvalds know all of it,but most are only familiar
with the corners of it that they need to know.These folks,who may
number in the thousands,are far outnumbered by the millions who use
the Linux OS daily.
It’s interesting to wonder if the ratio of technically anointed to blithe
users in the free source world is comparable to the ratio in Microsoft’s
dominion. After all, Microsoft will share its source code with close
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partners after they sign some nondisclosure forms.
While Microsoft is
careful about what it tells its partners,it will reveal information only when
there’s something to gain.Other companies have already jumped right in
and started offering source code to all users who want to look at it.
Answering this question is impossible for two different reasons.First,
no one knows what Microsoft reveals to its partners because it keeps all of
this information secret,by reflex.Contracts are usually negotiated under
nondisclosure,and the company has not been shy about exploiting the
power that comes from the lack of information.
Second,no one really knows who reads the Linux source code for the
opposite reason.The GNU
Linux source is widely available and fre-
quently downloaded,but that doesn’t mean it’s read or studied.The Red
Hat CDs come with one CD full of precompiled binaries and the sec-
ond full of source code.Who knows whoever pops the second CD-
ROM in their computer? Everyone is free to do so in the privacy of
their own cubicle,so no records are kept.
If I were to bet,I would guess that the ratios of cognoscenti to unin-
formed users in the Linux and Microsoft worlds are pretty close.
Reading the Source just takes too much time and too much effort for
many in the Linux world to take advantage of the huge river of infor-
mation available to them.
If this is true or at least close to true,then why has the free source world
been able to move so much more quickly than the Microsoft world? The
answer isn’t that everyone in the free source world is using the Source,it’s that
everyone is free to use it.When one person needs to ask a question or scratch
an itch,the Source is available with no questions asked and no lawyers con-
sulted.Even at 3:00
.,a person can read the Source.At Microsoft and
other corporations,they often need to wait for the person running that divi-
sion or section to give them permission to access the source code.
There are other advantages.The free source world spends a large
amount of time keeping the source code clean and accessible.A pro-
grammer who tries to get away with sloppy workmanship and bad doc-
At this writing,Microsoft has not released its source code,but the company is widely
known to be examining the option as part of its settlement with the Department of
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umentation will pay for it later as others come along and ask thousands
Corporate developers,on the other hand,have layers of secrecy and
bureaucracy to isolate them from questions and comments.It is often
hard to find the right programmer in the rabbit warren of cubicles who
has the source code in the first place.One Microsoft programmer was
quoted as saying,“A developer at Microsoft working on the OS can’t
scratch an itch he’s got with Excel,neither can the Excel developer
scratch his itch with the OS—it would take him months to figure out
how to build and debug and install,and he probably couldn’t get proper
source access anyway.”
This problem is endemic to corporations.The customers are buying
the binary version,not the source code,so there is no reason to dress up
the backstage wings of the theater.After some time,though,people
change cubicles,move to other corporations,and information disap-
pears.While companies try to keep source code databases to synchro-
nize development, , the efforts often fall apart.After Apple canceled
development of their Newton handheld,many Newton users were livid.
They had based big projects on the platform and they didn’t want to
restart their work.Many asked whether Apple could simply give away
the OS’s source code instead of leaving it to rot on some hard disk.
Apple dodged these requests,and this made some people even more
cynical.One outside developer speculated,“It probably would not be
possible to re-create the OS.The developers are all gone.All of them
went to Palm,and they probably couldn’t just put it back together again
if they wanted to.”
Of course,corporations try to fight this rot by getting their program-
mers to do a good job at the beginning and write plenty of documenta-
tion.In practice,this slips a bit because it is not rewarded by the culture
of secrecy.I know one programmer who worked for a project at MIT.
The boss thought he was being clever by requiring comments on each
procedure and actually enforcing it with an automated text-scanning
robot that would look over the source code and count the comments.
My friend turned around and hooked up one version of the popular
artificial intelligence chatterbots like Eliza and funneled the responses
into the comment field.Then everyone was happy.The chatterbot filled
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the comment field,the automated comment police found something
vaguely intelligent, , and the programmer got to spend his free time
doing other things.The boss never discovered the problem.
Programmers are the same the world over, , and joining the free
source world doesn’t make them better people or destroy their impu-
dence.But it does penalize them if others come along and try to use
their code.If it’s inscrutable,sloppy,or hard to understand,then others
will either ignore it or pummel them with questions.That is a strong
incentive to do it right.
The limitations to the power of open source might be summarized in the
answer to the question “How many open source developers does it take to
change a lightbulb?”The answer is: : 17.Seventeen to argue about the
license;17 to argue about the brain-deadedness of the lightbulb architec-
ture;17 to argue about a new model that encompasses all models of illumi-
nation and makes it simple to replace candles,campfires,pilot lights,and
skylights with the same easy-to-extend mechanism;17 to speculate about
the secretive industrial conspiracy that ensures that lightbulbs will burn out
frequently;1 to finally change the bulb;and 16 who decide that this solu-
tion is good enough for the time being.
The open source development model is a great way for very creative
people to produce fascinating software that breaks paradigms and
establishes new standards for excellence.It may not be the best way,
however,to finish boring jobs like fine-tuning a graphical interface,or
making sure that the scheduling software used by executives is as bul-
letproof as possible.
While the open development model has successfully tackled the
problem of creating some great tools,of building a strong OS,and of
building very flexible appliance applications like web browsers,it is a
long way from winning the battle for the desktop.Some free source
people say the desktop applications for average users are just around
the corner and the next stop on the Free Software Express.Others
aren’t so sure.
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 118
David Henkel-Wallace is one of the founders of the free software
company Cygnus.This company built its success around supporting the
development tools created by Stallman’s Free Software Foundation.
They would sign contracts with companies to answer any questions they
had about using the free software tools.At first companies would balk
at paying for support until they realized that it was cheaper than hiring
in-house technical staff to do the work.John Gilmore,one of the co-
founders,liked to say,“We make free software affordable.”
The company grew by helping chip manufacturers tune the FSF
compiler,GCC,for their chip.This was often a difficult and arduous
task,but it was very valuable to the chip manufacturer because potential
customers knew they could get a good compiler to produce software for
the chip.While Intel continued to dominate the desktop,the market for
embedded chips to go into products like stoves, , microwave ovens,
VCRs,or other smart boxes boomed as manufacturers rolled out new
chips to make it cheaper and easier to add smart features to formerly
dumb boxes.The engineers at the companies were often thrilled to dis-
cover that they could continue to use GCC to write software for a new
chip,and this made it easier to sell the chip.
Cygnus always distributed to the Source their modifications to GCC
as the GNU General Public License demanded.This wasn’t a big deal
because the chip manufacturers wanted the software to be free and easy
for everyone to use.This made Cygnus one of the clearinghouses for
much of the information on how GCC worked and how to make it
Henkel-Wallace is quick to praise the power of publicly available
source code for Cygnus’s customers.They were all programmers,after
all.If they saw something they didn’t like with GCC,they knew how to
poke around on the insides and fix it.That was their job.
“[GCC] is a compiler tool and it was used by developers so they were
smart enough.When something bothered someone,we fixed it.There
was a very tight coupling,”he said.
He openly wonders,though,whether the average word processor or
basic tool user will be able to do anything.He says,“The downside is
that it’s hard to transfer that knowledge with a user who isn’t a devel-
oper.Let’s say Quicken has a special feature for lawyers.You need to
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