The Open Source Revolution Or: Mr. Gates, Meet Mr. Torvalds

Hal Plotkin
Monday, August 3, 1998

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/1998/08/03/open_source.DTL

Just when Justice Department lawyers, Wall Street analysts, and most pundits are telling us that Bill Gates’ juggernaut is unstoppable, Microsoft is finally facing a kind of digital Waterloo: It’s called the open-source software movement. In just a few short months since the term was first coined, the open-source movement has emerged as the most significant threat Microsoft has ever faced.

Already, it has energized thousands of programmers, several key venture capitalists, and a handful of savvy entrepreneurs. If it continues to grow, as appears likely, its fruits will forever change the way software is made, marketed, serviced, and supported. In addition, it could make the current debate about Microsoft’s alleged improper business practices entirely irrelevant. Put simply, Microsoft just won’t matter that much anymore.

The growing popularity of open-source software portends the biggest change in the computer industry since two guys named Jobs and Wozniak first led the rebellion against expensive mainframes and their corporate owners two decades ago. Once again, the computer industry is entering the throes of another giant metamorphosis. Only this time, it may be an even more important transformation than earlier great leaps — like the migration from mainframes to personal computers, or hot type presses to online publications. Open-source software has the power to change reality in ways that are as profound as anything seen this century, with the possible exception of the advent of the automobile or atomic weapons.

Unlike the proprietary software sold by companies such as Microsoft, the producers of open-source software products freely distribute the programming information, called source code, that makes their products tick. It’s the difference between buying a car that only the dealer can fix or buying a car with a manual that any good car mechanic can understand. Once a software product’s source code is known it’s impossible for any one company to dominate markets by controlling information. In the coming brave new world of open-source software the only way to compete will be to find better ways to service and support customers. First-rate software service and support: What a concept.

The movement, which has been around in one form or another for more than a decade, gained considerable momentum earlier this year when Malvern, Pa., software developer Eric Raymond published his influential paper “The Cathedral and the Bazaar“. Raymond trademarked the term “open source” with Bruce Perens, a Pixar programmer, last February.

Raymond’s main thesis, which touched off a firestorm in the industry, is that there are essentially two ways to build software products: the proprietary “cathedral” model, where development is closely controlled by those who work in secret for an individual company; and the open-source “bazaar” model in which the inner workings of computer software products, the usually secret-source code, is freely shared with anyone who might want or be able to make an improvement. Raymond’s successful experience with a “bazaar”-style software-development project is chronicled in his paper.

Groups and organizations dedicated to supporting the open-source model, fueled by Raymond’s stunning insights, are now sprouting like mushrooms after a spring rain. A directory of such groups, and links to other fronts of this burgeoning revolution, can be found at http://opensource.org. Raymond’s paper also touched a nerve with executives at Netscape who credited the paper for their decision to release the source code for their popular Navigator browser several months ago.

Open-source software got perhaps its biggest boost, though, several years ago when an obscure Finnish software developer, Linus Torvalds, decided it would be fun to create a UNIX-like operating system. Operating systems are to computers what wheels are to things that move. Nothing happens on a computer; no programs work, if the computer does not have a viable operating system. One of the reasons the automobile industry flourished in this century was that, unlike the tight control Microsoft has over operating systems, no one company controlled the rights to the wheel. If one company had, it might have eventually controlled everything that moves — including cars, clocks, bicycles, trucks and even Lazy Susans.

Torvalds didn’t like the fact that one company, Microsoft, dominated the operating-system market. Like others, Torvalds watched as Microsoft used its control of its operating system, Windows, to crush competitors and assimilate their technologies. So, as chronicled in a recent eight-minute report on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” (RealAudio file), Torvalds began working on an operating system of his own, first called Linus’ UNIX, and later, simply Linux. When he found he couldn’t do it all by himself, Torvalds did something geniuses have often done: he asked for help.

His proposal, offered on an Internet Usenet newsgroup, was pretty simple: programmers would voluntarily work together free of charge, with Torvalds coordinating, to create an operating system that would be freely available to anyone who wanted it. It was as if someone said to Gates, the world’s richest man, “I see your bet and I raise it.” If Gates was going to use his near-monopoly on operating systems to crush new companies by integrating their wares into his product for free, the only appropriate response was to do him the same favor. I’ll see your free Web browser, Mr. Gates, and raise you a free operating system.

Here in Silicon Valley, this new trend is just about the hottest inside news around. Many of the same people who championed the Internet into existence years ago are now hopping onto the open-source bandwagon. That is not surprising since the Internet was itself built and relies upon open-source software, such as the Internet protocol, called IP, that helps route information from computer to computer.

With Torvalds’ blessing at least two companies, Caldera and Redhat, are already selling products — primarily for programmers and business users — based on the Linux open source operating system. Typically, these companies give away the basic Linux product while charging modest sums for added features and support. “The power of the open-source model,” says Caldera Software General Manager Ransom Love, “is that it is an open process. You haven’t turned over your destiny to any one vendor.” Armed with source code, users can freely alter, fix, or improve the software to meet their own needs. “You don’t have to wait until the vendor fixes the bugs or the next version comes out,” Love says.

Some of the first customers are already raving. “It wasn’t even close,” says Alan Harnetiaux, a network administrator for San Marcos, Ca.-based Natural Alternatives International, Inc., a maker of nutritional supplements. Harnetiaux figures his company saved upward of $10,000 by installing a Linux-based open-source networking product provided by Caldera. Best of all, the product, running on a 166-mhz Pentium with 32 Megs of RAM, hasn’t crashed a single time in almost a year of operation.

“It’s a stable product,” Love says, crediting the open-source “bazaar” development method for eliminating the bugs that have long plagued most proprietary operating systems. Several industry analysts say Linux-based server software provided by startup companies such as Caldera already exceeds Microsoft’s comparable and more expensive NT product when it comes to reliability. The next step will be more applications ported, or made compatible with, the Linux open-source operating system.

The same giddy atmosphere that once filled the air at the old Homebrew Computer Club meetings in Silicon Valley that gave rise to Apple’s first personal computer can now be found at a variety of open-source gatherings, such as the standing-room-only local Linux user’s group affairs or the upcoming first-ever Open Source Developer day, hosted by Internet publishing pioneer O’Reilly & Associates, scheduled for Aug. 21 in San Jose.

If open source takes hold, thousands of new companies will be created, competition in computer software markets will be restored, and consumers will find themselves with more choices and more support. Even more important, the next generation of students will benefit from being able to look under the hood of competitive software products, see how they work, and learn how to create their own improvements, their own new software.

The politicians who keep moaning about the regrettable lack of computers in our classrooms appear sincere when they tell us that students must learn to use computers to be competitive in the next century. What they don’t know is that learning how to use computers will not be nearly enough. Today’s students must learn how to program computers, and how to make, repair, and improve software.

The folks in New York and Washington, D.C., who still dominate our nation’s mainstream news media, don’t seem to have a clue yet about the incredible impact the growing open-source software movement will have on business, government, or education. They seem to think the contours of available technologies will be shaped in courthouses or in Congress. But while they focus on yesterday’s reality an entirely new industry with the power to change everything, open-source software, is busy being born.

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