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Miguel de Icaza doesn't seem like a saboteur, but he spent the last 16 months building a bomb. From his desk at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico City, the 26-year-old marshaled support from 250 volunteers around the world, most of whom he's never met. Together they tinkered and retooled, and, on March 3, Icaza tossed it out into the world.
At this point, the wise bet is to head toward the detonation that's where things will start to get interesting. De Icaza is the coordinator he won't accept a grander title for a hugely ambitious software project called Gnome, which wants to radicalize you via your computer. Publicly released two weeks ago, Gnome is a conscientious objection to the greed, inefficiencies, and tyranny of the technology industry as we know it, packed into an executable file. From the heart of the capitalist technopoly, Gnome is a free software alternative to the Windows desktop free to download from the Net, to copy, to alter.
"I'm not thinking of making money off it," says de Icaza. "We're trying to take software back to its scientific origins that it had [of] sharing ideas and the advancement of code for humanity." Hackers might call it a "Microsoft killer," but Gnome is more like a monument to public works in the digital age.
It's just one of many in an emergent "gift economy" of technology. Gnome runs on top of the Linux operating system, the most famous of the cooperatively developed free software projects. If Linux is the engine, Gnome is the four-door automobile designed for the Sunday driver: Linux talks to the hardware, and Gnome takes care of the visual interface and the applications. Like a stripped-down Microsoft Windows, Gnome comes with a spreadsheet program and Tetris clones, with a word processor soon to follow. While Linux has appealed mostly to hardcore programmers, Gnome is one of the first strategic attempts to draw "regular users" like "kids or secretary-people" away from proprietary software, says de Icaza, and over to entirely nonproprietary systems.
In their current incarnations, both Linux and Gnome can be mighty chores to install (see accompanying story); even fans of the operating system caution against doing it solo. But soon this may no longer be a barrier Dell and IBM have hinted they will sell Linux preinstalled on machines in the near future. Rumors are now circulating that Microsoft might be preparing to kiss up to the enemy by making Windows applications compatible with Linux.
To see free software efforts like Gnome and Linux as merely technical innovations is to grossly underestimate them. After all, people never used to march in support of software. But last month, Linux converts across the country protested against Microsoft, demanding that the company refund the cost of Windows operating systems that they were forced to buy but never used. A mood of religious revival infuses the meetings of LXNY (lxny.org), a New York Linux users' group, with teams of audience members jumping at the chance to baptize computers with Linux at "Install Fests." Randy Wright, a LXNY member, with a T-shirt bearing the Linux slogan "Total World Domination," calls the group "an extension of the Peace Corps." Wright has volunteered to install Linux at schools across the city, like the Frederick Douglass Literacy Center in Bed-Stuy. He does it, he says, to "do something to mitigate the pain of there being haves and have-nots."
Software, it seems, has its first progressive politics. The catch is that many of the foot soldiers in the revolution don't necessarily see it that way. For them, the allure of free software is the freedom to choose better code or write it themselves. "For the 99.9 percent of the people who develop [free software], it's not about politics," says Bernd Johannes Wuebben, a bond strategist in New York who, in his spare time, programs for another free software project called KDE. (Much like Gnome, KDE is a popular, free desktop.) "It's really about the idea to run what you want and do with it what you want. . . . We just want to get something done."
But "the issue was never to make money" with KDE, Wuebben says. That impulse is already radical, considering the inflated cost of software in the current "wealth-obsessed high-tech industry," as Tim O'Reilly calls it. O'Reilly, the publisher of the highly regarded O'Reilly programming books, has become a high-profile supporter of "Open Source," a less ideological branch of the free software movement. Open Source practitioners are fighting to convince private companies to "open" their code to the public, both to generate better software and to ensure that people can still make a living from creating it in the first place.
"Where information is often hoarded, it does take an act of conscious altruism to give software away," O'Reilly says. But for him, the revolution is not about socialist programming, but communication. "Computer source code is ultimately a form of speech, and a society that values free speech and the free flow of information endangers itself if it puts up artificial barriers."
O'Reilly's position points to the tangle of communitarian ideals and techno-libertarian practice that has held the movement together. Gnome itself is the result of a joint effort between public spirit and private gain. Red Hat Software, a for-profit distributor of Linux and accompanying free software, assigned a team of 10 programmers on its staff to help streamline and support Gnome for its 1.0 release. Red Hat makes money by making Linux convenient the company sells a highly regarded "brand" of Linux and manuals about setting it up.