machines over the years,like the IBM 1130 and the DEC PDP–8.He
started out as an electrical engineer in college,but took up writing soft-
ware “after seeing a friend of mine fried by 13,600 volts and 400 amps,
which was not a pretty sight.”Hall started playing with UNIX when he
worked at Bell Labs and fell in love with the OS.
At the meeting,Torvalds helped Hall and his boss set up a PC with
Linux.This was the first time that Hall actually saw Linux run,and he
was pleasantly surprised.He said,“By that time I had been using UNIX
for probably about fifteen years. I had used System V, , I had used
Berkeley, and all sorts of stuff, , and this really felt like UNIX. . You
know ...I mean,it’s kind of like playing the piano.You can play the
piano,even if it’s a crappy piano.But when it’s a really good piano,your
fingers just fly over the keys.That’s the way this felt.It felt good,and I
was really impressed.”
This experience turned Hall into a true convert and he went back to
Digital convinced that the Linux project was more than just some kids
playing with a toy OS.These so-called amateurs with no centralized
system or corporate backing had produced a very,very impressive sys-
tem that was almost as good as the big commercial systems.Hall was an
instant devotee.Many involved in the project recall their day of conver-
sion with the same strength.A bolt of lightning peeled the haze away
from their eyes,and they saw.
Hall set out trying to get Torvalds to rewrite Linux so it would work
well on the Alpha.This was not a simple task,but it was one that
helped the operating system grow a bit more.The original version
included some software that assumed the computer was designed like
the Intel 386.This was fine when Linux only ran on Intel machines,
but removing these assumptions made it possible for the software to
run well on all types of machines.
Hall went sailing with Torvalds to talk about the guts of the Linux
OS.Hall told me,“I took him out on the Mississippi River,went up
and down the Mississippi in the river boat,drinking Hurricanes,and I
said to him,‘Linus,did you ever think about porting Linux to a 64-bit
processor,like the Alpha?’He said,‘Well,I thought about doing that,
but the Helsinki office has been having problems getting me a system,
so I guess I’ll have to do the PowerPC instead.’
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“I knew that was the wrong answer,so I came back to Digital (at the
time),and got a friend of mine,named Bill Jackson,to send out a sys-
tem to Linus,and he received it about a couple weeks after that.Then I
found some people inside Digital who were also thinking about porting
Linux to an Alpha.I got the two groups together,and after that,we
started on the Alpha Linux project.”
This was one of the first times that a major corporation started tak-
ing note of what was happening in the garages and basements of hard-
core computer programmers.It was also one of the first times that a
corporation looked at an open source operating system and did not react
with fear or shock.Sun was always a big contributor of open source
software,but they kept their OS proprietary.Hall worked tirelessly at
Digital to ensure that the corporation understood the implications of
the GPL and saw that it was a good way to get more interested in the
Alpha chip.He says he taught upper management at Digital how to
“say the L-word.”
Hall also helped start a group called Linux International, , which
works to make the corporate world safe for Linux.“We help vendors
understand the Linux marketplace,”Hall told me.“There’s a lot of con-
fusion about what the GPL means.Less now,but still there’s a lot of
confusion.We helped them find the markets.”
Today,Linux International helps control the trademark on the name
Linux and ensures that it is used in an open way.“When someone
wanted to call themselves something like ‘Linux University,’we said
that’s bad because there’s going to be more than one.‘Linux University
of North Carolina’is okay.It opens up the space.”
In the beginning,Torvalds depended heavily on the kindness of
strangers like Hall.He didn’t have much money,and the Linux project
wasn’t generating a huge salary for him.Of course,poverty also made it
easier for people like Hall to justify giving him a machine.Torvalds
wasn’t rich monetarily,but he became rich in machines.
By 1994,when Hall met Torvalds,Linux was already far from just a
one-man science project.The floppy disks and CD-ROMs holding a
version of the OS were already on the market, and this distribution
mechanism was one of the crucial unifying forces.Someone could just
plunk down a few dollars and get a version that was more or less ready
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to run. Many simply downloaded their versions for free from the
In 1994,getting Linux to run was never really as simple as putting the
CD-ROM in the drive and pressing a button.Many of the programs
didn’t work with certain video cards. . Some modems didn’t talk to
Linux.Not all of the printers communicated correctly.Yet most of the
software worked together on many standard machines.It often took a
bit of tweaking,but most people could get the OS up and running on
This was a major advance for the Linux OS because most people
could quickly install a new version without spending too much time
downloading the new code or debugging it.Even programmers who
understood exactly what was happening felt that installing a new ver-
sion was a long,often painful slog through technical details.These CD-
ROMs not only helped programmers,they also encouraged casual users
to experiment with the system.
The CD-ROM marketplace also created a new kind of volunteer for
the project.Someone had to download the latest code from the author.
Someone had to watch the kernel mailing list to see when Torvalds,
Cox,and the rest had minted a new version that was stable enough to
release.Someone needed to check all the other packages like GNU
Emacs or GNU CC to make sure they still worked correctly.This didn’t
require the obsessive programming talent that created the kernel,but it
did take some dedication and devotion.
Today,there are many different kinds of volunteers putting together
these packages.The Debian group, , for instance, , is one of the best
known and most devoted to true open source principles.It was started
by Ian Murdock,who named it after himself and his girlfriend,Debra.
The Debian group,which now includes hundreds of official members,
checks to make sure that the software is both technically sound and
politically correct.That is,they check the licenses to make sure that the
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software can be freely distributed by all users.Their guidelines later
morphed into the official definition of open source software.
Other CD-ROM groups became more commercial.Debian sold its
disks to pay for Internet connection fees and other expenses,but they
were largely a garage operation. . So were groups with names like
Slackware,FreeBSD,and OpenBSD.Other groups like Red Hat actu-
ally set out to create a burgeoning business,and to a large extent,they
succeeded.They took the money and used it to pay programmers who
wrote more software to make Linux easier to use.
In the beginning,there wasn’t much difference between the commer-
cially minded groups like Red Hat and the more idealistic collectives like
Debian.The marketplace was small,fragmented,and tribal.But by 1998,
Red Hat had attracted major funding from companies like Intel,and it
plowed more and more money into making the package as presentable and
easy to use as possible.This investment paid off because more users turned
instinctively to Red Hat,whose CD-ROM sales then exploded.
Most of this development lived in its own Shangri-La.Red Hat,for
instance,charged money for its disks,but released all of its software
under the GPL.Others could copy their disks for free,and many did.
Red Hat may be a company,but the management realized that they
depended on thousands if not millions of unpaid volunteers to create
Slowly but surely,more and more people became aware of Linux,the
GNU project,and its cousins like FreeBSD.No one was making much
money off the stuff,but the word of mouth was spreading very quickly.
The disks were priced reasonably,and people were curious.The GPL
encouraged people to share.People began borrowing disks from their
friends.Some companies even manufactured cheap rip-off copies of the
CD-ROMs,an act that the GPL encouraged.
At the top of the pyramid was Linus Torvalds.Many Linux develop-
ers treated him like the king of all he surveyed,but he was like the mon-
archs who were denuded by a popular constitutional democracy.He had
always focused on building a fast,stable kernel,and that was what he
continued to do.The rest of the excitement,the packaging,the features,
and the toys,were the dominion of the volunteers and contributors.
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Torvalds never said much about the world outside his kernel,and it
developed without him.
Torvalds moved to Silicon Valley and took a job with the very secret
company Transmeta in order to help design the next generation of
computer chips.He worked out a special deal with the company that
allowed him to work on Linux in his spare time.He felt that working
for one of the companies like Red Hat would give that one version of
Linux a special imprimatur, , and he wanted to avoid that. . Plus,
Transmeta was doing cool things.
In January 1999, , the world caught up with the pioneers.
Schmalensee mentioned Linux on the witness stand during the trial
and served official notice to the world that Microsoft was worried
about the growth of Linux.The system had been on the company’s
radar screen for some time.In October 1998,an internal memo from
Microsoft describing the threat made its way to the press. . Some
thought it was just Microsoft’s way of currying favor during the anti-
trust investigation.Others thought it was a serious treatment of a topic
that was difficult for the company to understand.
The media followed Schmalensee’s lead.Everyone wanted to know
about Linux,GNU,open source software,and the magical effects of
widespread,unconditional sharing.The questions came in tidal waves,
and Torvalds tried to answer them again and again.Was he sorry he
gave it all away? No.If he charged anything,no one would have bought
his toy and no one would have contributed anything.Was he a commu-
nist? No,he was rather apolitical.Don’t programmers have to eat? Yes,
but they will make their money selling a service instead of getting rich
off bad proprietary code.Was Linux going to overtake Microsoft? Yes,
if he had his way.World Domination Soon became the motto.
But there were also difficult questions.How would the Linux world
resist the embrace of big companies like IBM,Apple,Hewlett-Packard,
and maybe even Microsoft? These were massive companies with paid
programmers and schedules to meet.All the open source software was
just as free to them as anyone else.Would these companies use their
strength to monopolize Linux?
Some were worried that the money would tear apart the open source
community.It’s easy to get everyone to donate their time to a project
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when no one is getting paid.Money changes the equation.Would a gulf
develop between the rich companies like Red Hat and the poor pro-
grammers who just gave away their hard work?
Many wanted to know when Linux would become easier to use for
nonprogrammers.Programmers built the OS to be easy to take apart and
put back together again.That’s a great feature if you like hacking the
inside of a kernel,but that doesn’t excite the average computer user.How
was the open source community going to get the programmers to donate
their time to fix the mundane,everyday glitches that confused and infuri-
ated the nonprogrammers? Was the Linux community going to be able to
produce something that a nonprogrammer could even understand?
Others wondered if the Linux world could ever agree enough to create a
software package with some coherence.Today,Microsoft users and pro-
grammers pull their hair out trying to keep Windows 95,Windows 98,and
Windows NT straight.Little idiosyncrasies cause games to crash and pro-
grams to fail.Microsoft has hundreds of quality assurance engineers and
thousands of support personnel.Still,the little details drive everyone crazy.
New versions of Linux appear as often as daily.People often create
their own versions to solve particular problems.Many of these changes
won’t affect anyone,but they can add up.Is there enough consistency to
make the tools easy enough to use?
Many wondered if Linux was right for world domination.
Programmers might love playing with source code,but the rest of the
world just wants something that delivers the e-mail on time. More
important,the latter are willing to pay for this efficiency.
Such questions have been bothering the open source community for
years and still have no easy answers today.Programmers need food,and
food requires money.Making easy-to-use software requires discipline,
and discipline doesn’t always agree with total freedom.
When the first wave of hype about free software swept across the
zeitgeist,no one wanted to concentrate on these difficult questions.The
high quality of free operating systems and their use at high-profile sites
was good news for the world.The success of unconditional
cooperation was intoxicating.If free software could do so much with so
little,it could overcome the difficult questions.Besides,it didn’t have to
be perfect.It just needed to be better than Microsoft.
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The notion embodied by the word “free”is one of the great marketing
devices of all time. . Cereal manufacturers know that kids will slog
through bowls of sugar to get a free prize.Stores know that people will
gladly give them their names and addresses if they stand a chance of
winning something for free.Car ads love to emphasize the freedom a
new car will give to someone.
Of course,Microsoft knows this fact as well.One of their big adver-
tising campaigns stresses the freedom to create new documents,write
long novels,fiddle with photographs,and just do whatever you want
with a computer. “Where do you want to go today?”the Microsoft
Microsoft also recognizes the pure power of giving away something
for free.When Bill Gates saw Netscape’s browser emerging as a great
competitive threat,he first bought a competing version and then wrote
his own version of a web browser.Microsoft gave their versions away
for free.This bold move shut down the revenue stream of Netscape,
which had to cut its price to zero in order to compete.Of course,
Netscape didn’t have revenues from an operating system to pay the rent.
Netscape cried foul and eventually the Department of Justice brought a
lawsuit to decide whether the free software from Microsoft was just a
plot to keep more people paying big bucks for their not-so-free
Windows OS.The fact that Microsoft is now threatened by a group of
people who are giving away a free OS has plenty of irony.
The word “free”has a much more complicated and nuanced meaning
within the free software movement.In fact,many people who give away
their software don’t even like the word “free”and prefer to use “open”to
FreeForAll/1-138/repro 4/21/00 11:44 AM Page 77
describe the process of sharing.In the case of free software,it’s not just an
ad campaign to make people feel good about buying a product.It’s also
not a slick marketing sleight of hand to focus people’s attention on a free
gift while the magician charges full price for a product.The word “free”is
more about a way of life.The folks who write the code throw around the
word in much the same way the Founding Fathers of the United States
used it.To many of them,the free software revolution was also conceived
in liberty and dedicated to certain principles like the fact that all men and
women have certain inalienable rights to change,modify,and do whatever
they please with their software in the pursuit of happiness.
Tossing about the word “free”is easy to do.Defining what it means
takes much longer.The Declaration of Independence was written in
1776,but the colonial governments fought and struggled with creating
a free government through the ratification of the current United States
Constitution in 1787.The Bill of Rights came soon afterward,and the
Supreme Court is still continually struggling with defining the bound-
aries of freedom described by the document.Much of the political his-
tory of the United States might be said to be an extended argument
about the meaning of the words “free country.”
The free software movement is no different.It’s easy for one person
to simply give their software away for free.It’s much harder to attract
and organize an army to take on Microsoft and dominate the world.
That requires a proper definition of the word “free”so that everyone
understands the rights and limitations behind the word. . Everyone
needs to be on the same page if the battle is to be won.Everyone needs
to understand what is meant by “free software.”
The history of the free software world is also filled with long,
extended arguments defining the freedom that comes bundled with the
source code.Many wonder if it is more about giving the user something
for nothing,or if is it about empowering him.Does this freedom come
with any responsibilities? What should they be? How is the freedom
enforced? Is freeloading a proper part of the freedom?
In the early years of computers, , there were no real arguments.
Software was free because people just shared it with each other.
Magazines like Cr
mputing and BYTEpublished the source
code to programs because that was an easy way to share information.
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People would even type in the data themselves.Computers cost money,
and getting them to run was part of the challenge.Sharing software was
just part of being neighborly.If someone needed to borrow your plow,
you lent it to them when you weren’t using it.
This changed as corporations recognized that they could copyright
software and start charging money for it. . Most people loved this
arrangement because the competition brought new packages and tools
to market and people were more than willing to pay for them.How else
are the programmers and the manual writers going to eat?
A few people thought this was a disaster.Richard Stallman watched the
world change from his office in the artificial intelligence labs of MIT.
Stallman is the ultimate hacker,if you use the word in the classical sense.
In the beginning,the word only described someone who knows how to
program well and loves to poke around in the insides of computers.It only
took on its more malicious tone later as the media managed to group all of
those with the ability to wrangle computers into the same dangerous
camp.Hackers often use the term “cracker”to refer to these people.
Stallman is a model of the hacker.He is strident,superintelligent,
highly logical, , and completely honest. Most corporations keep their
hackers shut off in a back room because these traits seem to scare away
customers and investors who just want sweet little lies in their ears.
Stallman was never that kind of guy.He looked at the burgeoning cor-
porate control of software and didn’t like it one bit.His freedom was
slowly being whittled away,and he wasn’t the type to simply sit by and
not say anything.
When Stallman left the AI lab in 1984,he didn’t want to be con-
trolled by its policies.Universities started adopting many of the same
practices as the corporations in the 1980s,and Stallman couldn’t be a
special exception.If MIT was going to be paying him a salary,MIT
would own his code and any patents that came from it. Even MIT,
which is a much cooler place than most,couldn’t accommodate him on
staff. He didn’t move far,however,because after he set up the Free
Software Foundation,he kept an office at MIT,first unofficially and
then officially.Once he wasn’t “on the staff,”the rules became different.
Stallman turned to consulting for money,but it was consulting with a
twist.He would only work for companies that wouldn’t put any restric-
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