To those of us who never pay for software anyway, Netscape's announcement, on January 21, that it was about to distribute its browser for free meant exactly nothing. Except for a Quicken financial-planning program I bought in the box for a friend one Christmas, I have never been to a software store, never given my credit-card number over Net or phone to a software company, never mailed a check to "register" any demo version of whatever software I happened to use. That hardly makes me a pirate; I haven't done anything illegal. I've just found no reason to pay for anything: Every program to which I am loyal - including all the guts of one machine's Linux-based GNU operating system - is free; the best e-mail interface for Windows or Mac, Eudora Light, is free; the Microsoft software that comes automatically loaded on each and every PC in the store is de facto free, if only because you don't have the option of buying the computer without it. And to anyone paying attention, Netscape has always been free. No one has ever been forced to pay for their demo version, and no one I've ever met has.
Of course, Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale has promised a much greater freedom than freedom from cost. He promised to release the source code to the Netscape browser - the instructions, written in C and C++, for building the program. To the average consumer (many of whom, I've recently discovered, don't realize that Netscape is in fact software and not the Internet itself) this meant less than nothing, but to some of the people who call themselves software developers it could potentially mean a lot, including not having to wait for the programmers in Mountain View to fix Netscape's bugs.
As it happens, however, there are others in the software community, adherents of a long-standing tradition of certifiably "free" software, who are looking a little more closely at Netscape's terms in general, and its definition of freedom in particular. "We've got to look carefully at what they've actually promised," says Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, principal programmer of a collection of free software called GNU (it stands for "GNU's Not Unix") and avatar of digital freedom sine qua non. "They haven't promised to do all of the things that make up the meaning of free software." By Stallman's definition, free software works on three different levels. On one, there's "the freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs." On another, there's "the freedom to redistribute copies so you can share with your neighbor." Finally, the vendor must allow any independent developer "the freedom to improve the program, and release improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits." In other words, as Stallman writes on his Web site (http://www.gnu.org/), "Think 'free speech,' not 'free beer.'"
By all accounts, Netscape has every intention of meeting the first tenet of the GNU manifesto. It's on the other two levels that Stallman questions Netscape's commitment to free software, which is a concept almost nobody in the media interprets accurately. Several reporters have described Netscape's move as a "return to roots," noting that the company's senior vice president of technology, Marc Andreessen, developed its browser's precursor, Mosaic, at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. "But Mosaic is not free software!" Stallman objects. "Many people think of it as free software, but the fact is that redistribution of Mosaic is not permitted, so it's not really free. They missed a crucial component of freedom. It's one example of a university forgetting what it is."
Stallman is only half hoping Netscape adopts GNU's General Public License, a legal attachment requiring that the program remain "copylefted" no matter who adds to it, improves it or fixes it. The GNU GPL, he acknowledges, is not the only road to freedom. But if the company at the very least permits open redistribution, it will accrue far more benefits than damage. Stories about renegade versions flooding the market "have no basis in fact," says Stallman. "If the original developer of a program does a good job of continuing to maintain it and puts in features people like, no other version will become widely used. In general, people know where they're getting a copy from, and will get it from reputable places. Unless some other version is seen as having a great advantage, most people will get it from Netscape. There are powerful factors working against the distribution of low-quality software."
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In fact, low-quality software is more often found wrapped in cellophane. And open source code, as anyone who runs free software knows, usually leads to reliable applications. Of all the software running my Linux box - most of it GNU, free and copylefted - the only thing that ever crashes regularly is the still-not-quite-free Netscape. When the source code hits the public by March 31, I expect that to change.