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Free Is a Four-Letter World 

Suiting up the open system at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo (Second in a three-part series)

Wednesday, Mar 10 1999
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ON THE FACE OF IT, THE LINUXWORLD CONFERENCE and Expo looked like a free-software advocate's dream come true: The first commercial conference devoted to Linux since Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds invented it in 1991, LinuxWorld, held March 1­4 at the San Jose Convention Center, celebrated the rise of the open-source-code operating system in the marketplace -- a phenomenon that as little as two years ago would have seemed absurd. The conference showcased newly hatched collaborations between prescient Linux proponents and deep-pocketed industry heavies and showed evidence of start-up wealth in the open-source-code community: The carpeted booths of Compaq and IBM looked no more lush than those of thriving Linux distributors Caldera and Red Hat. And if salespeople from software companies Corel and Oracle were on hand to demonstrate new product, so were young, pale, shaggy-haired men, freshly emerged from the fluorescent haze of computer-science departments to bask in the glow of The Next Big Thing.

But amid all the conference festivities -- drawings for cars, T-shirts and stuffed penguins, optimistic talk about the Linux development model infusing Silicon Valley with a spirit of cooperation -- conflict was brewing on the inside. A rift had opened within the ranks of a community that had once rallied together around free software -- or, uh, open source software, depending on whom you choose to offend -- and LinuxWorld was mostly serving to give the sniping war some press.

Not that everyone in the press understands what the argument's about. Not even the antagonists themselves seem able to explain exactly where they disagree. On one side is the Free Software Foundation (FSF), led by former MacArthur fellow Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, a collection of software so crucial to Linux that his followers insist on calling the system "GNU/Linux." Stallman believes that the source code to software -- the raw ASCII instructions behind a program -- should be made available to whoever wants it. GNU certifies software with a GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), which stipulates that developers should have the right to modify and redistribute that source code as they please.

On the other side is Eric Raymond, a programmer who came up with the Open Source Initiative (OSI) soon after Netscape released its source code to the public. Raymond and OSI believe source code should be available to the public, too, and their Open Source "certification mark" requires that "the license of a program must guarantee the right to read, redistribute, modify [it]."

Neither organization holds a position inherently inimical to business or the flow of information; FSF has never objected to anyone making money off bundled distributions of Linux; OSI has never tolerated software developers who lock away the code they've written based on open-source applications. Raymond's influential "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" essay draws many of the same conclusions as FSF's GNU Manifesto, and the Open Source definition is, in its substance, virtually indistinguishable from the GNU GPL. And although each expresses it differently, both organizations only have better, more stable software as their ultimate goal. "Free software gets the whole community involved in working together to fix problems," writes Stallman.

Or, as Raymond puts it, "Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow."

The difference, then, is largely semantic: FSF believes that software should not only be free, but be labeled as such -- "not in the monetary sense the word free implies when you say it in English," according to FSF distribution manager Tim Ney. "We mean free in the philosophical sense that libre implies when you say it in Spanish." But Raymond complains that free is "horribly ambiguous." "'Free software' has a load of fatal baggage," he writes on the Open Source Initiative's Web site (http://www.opensource.org). "To a businessperson, it's too redolent of fanaticism and flakiness and strident anti-commercialism." And so with that one word as a wedge, Raymond's charged adjectives and Stallman's deliberate righteousness are pushing the chasm ever wider each time either Stallman or Raymond speaks to a crowd (as of this writing, both men are away from their offices, doing just that). Out of this slim philosophical gap, demons are emerging.

1999, ACCORDING TO LINUX JOURNAL EDITOR PHIL Hughes, is "The Year of the Penguin" (the penguin is the Linux mascot). With Microsoft on the Department of Justice docket, Linux has started to seem less like the plaything of the lunatic hacker fringe and more like a solid business opportunity, one that could pull the computer industry up out of the stifling creative quagmire of Microsoft standards and secrets. New developers have figured out how to turn a profit on Linux by packaging it on CD and writing books about it; established hardware manufacturers are attracting new buyers with "Linux-friendly" clients and servers. According to figures supplied by IDG World Expo -- the people who brought you "dummies" books and produced this Linux show -- the market share for Linux rose 212 percent in 1998. Linux now resides on some 7 million personal desktops worldwide, but the real money, as Linux distributor Caldera repeated like a mantra throughout the conference, lies in recognizing Linux as a business tool. But first, the business world has to start taking Linux seriously.

"In marketing," says Raymond on his Web site, "appearance is reality. The appearance that we're willing to climb down off the barricades and work with the corporate world counts for as much as the reality of our behavior, our convictions, and our software." Open source, Raymond argues, "is a pitch for 'free software' on solid pragmatic grounds rather than ideological tub-thumping."

At LinuxWorld, however, Stallman's tendency to thump a tub now and then didn't seem to be enough to justify the criticism he was getting -- which by Thursday, the conference's last day, was starting to displace Microsoft bashing as the group sport of choice. Industry writer Nicholas Petreley's talk on the Linux impact made repeated disparaging references to FSF's refusal to pay its way at LinuxWorld, even though as an official "dot org" (nonprofit) it was entitled to attend for free. In a prominent news article circulated after the conference, Stallman was portrayed as an ideologue burdening his software with "value-laden judgments" that undermine the earnest efforts of OSI to bring Linux into the mainstream. The San Francisco Examiner's post-conference characterization of the FSF as "old-school, bearded hippies" neglected to mention that one of the GNU Project's most prominent developers at LinuxWorld, Manuel de Icaza, is 27 and clean-shaven. Nor did it mention that GNOME, the GNU Project's friendly, flexible desktop environment, was one of the show's software hits. "Old-school, bearded hippies" seemed to be as much of a marketing slogan as "open source": rhetoric to make the Open Source Initiative, by contrast, look appealing to the businessperson.

To the average geek concerned only with good software, however, GNU still looks pretty good, and profitable to boot: GNOME, which is free software in every sense -- gratis and libre -- is an emblematic example of what Tim Ney calls a "private-public partnership" between the free-software people and the computer industry. It has been bundled into Red Hat, the Linux distribution IBM plans to support. Red Hat pays salaries to programmers hacking GNOME, and plans to contribute a portion of GNOME's profits to FSF.

"We've kept using the word free, because it's not strictly about commerce," Ney explains. "Free software is a new modality, like the gift culture of Native Americans, in which your worth is measured by how much you give away, as opposed to an exchange culture, where you're worth what you receive. It is confusing to some people. But it's still what we're trying to promote."

Next week: Selling Linux to science

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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