Code Free

Unleashing Progressive Politics on the Technopoly

"If you're in a revolution, it takes a combination of interests," says Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat. "In the American Revolution, you had the Patrick Henrys with their Give me libertys and you had the New England bankers buying the cannons and rifles to win the war." (Red Hat now ships Gnome as the default desktop for its release of Linux.) According to Jay Sulzberger, the "corresponding secretary" of LXNY, Gnome "would have gotten nowhere if Red Hat hadn't hired people to work on it." A desktop project is so complicated, he says, that "there are some things you have to pay people to do."

Gnome's release may prove the ultimate test of the free software movement, just as corporate interests threaten to co-opt its growing social force. Over the past year, the industry's blue chips— like IBM, Sun, Oracle, and Netscape— have cozied up to the free software community to improve their product lines. The arrangement usually works like this: a private company releases its proprietary code to the public, angling to harness the collective intelligence of programmers on the outside. Then, volunteer coders begin tinkering, drawn by the challenge, their own needs, or rush of "ego-boo" when their contributions get accepted.

The highest profile example came last spring when Netscape released the source code for its Mozilla Web browser onto the Net. Within hours, a team of independent hackers called the Mozilla Crypto Group had sent in a fix. So far approximately 30 unpaid coders have helped refine Mozilla. But the success of Netscape's gambit remains to be proven; after a year of development, the collaboratively developed "next generation" browser has not yet been released.

With so many private companies starting to rely on the goodwill of programmers, it's not clear just how long the charity will last. And some are arguing that the popularity of Linux is overshadowing the philosophy that engendered it. Richard Stallman, the head of the Free Software Foundation (fsf.org) and a MacArthur grant winner, believes the civic principles of the community are already at risk from the onrush of corporate investment, which turns all eyes to the bottom line. "Imagine a democracy," Stallman says, "where they said, 'Democracy only works if the country is profitable, otherwise, it's not working, and we should switch to a dictatorship.' " Open Source proponents approach free software "with the view that there is no moral issue here . . . [focusing] on the practical, short-term benefits."

That's because the long-term future for private companies that have amassed their millions on proprietary code is one of diminishing returns. And, if the free software movement has any say, diminishing audiences. "Windows has to be the most profitable program ever written, protected by more legal barbed wire than any other program in existence," says Jeremy Lee, a coder who lives in Australia. "The hacker response? We'll just write another one."


Beware All Ye Who Install Linux Here

This sidebar was supposed to be about surgical calm in the face of output like "dev/hda1: invalid argument." I was supposed to be writing it at Miller Time.

But after five days of trying to install Linux (Red Hat's 5.2 version, $49.95) on my laptop, I can tell you it whupped my ass. Not just mine— my friend Ari, who has done many installs without a hitch and whom I bribed with pizza to come help, was also stumped. Which is bad news for Miguel de Icaza, Gnome, and the rest of the free software movement banking on large-scale conversion to the system. I'm one of the joiners, and if I can't get the revolution mounted on my D:/ drive, there's little hope for de Icaza's "kids" and "secretaries," who couldn't give two whits what drivers their PCMCIA cards need.

I had been warned. LXNY secretary Jay Sulzberger cautions, "Never install Linux alone." I use an IBM ThinkPad 560E, and the first truth you learn about installing Linux is that laptops are tricky test subjects. That's because laptop manufacturers throw a motley array of equipment into the machines and slap a single label on it all— easier for them, but terrible when you need to lift the hood.

First, I needed to "partition" my hard drive to make space for Linux— akin to giving the computer a split personality. Since virtually all PCs come with Windows pre-installed, I preserved a partition exclusively for Windows 95, and created a handful of partitions for Linux. (This step flirts with total data loss on the Windows end, so you must make sure you're prepared to deal with a vegetable if the process goes awry.) Then I tried to install the necessary files from the Red Hat CD-ROM. (There are three other popular Linux distributions— Caldera, Debian, and Slackware.) Installing from a CD-ROM, of course, assumes your machine can "mount"— recognize— your CD-ROM drive. Mine couldn't.

From there, it all spiraled downward. To get advice, Ari and I consulted the oracles via newsgroups— comp.os.linux.advocacy and comp.os. linux.setup— but as of press time, my predicament hadn't lured any takers. I sent e-mail to Red Hat support, which replied promptly, but every answer led to more questions. As a last resort we tried IBM, which was a total loss. The only information I could find on the Web site was that my "eyecatching" Thinkpad is "ultraportable without compromise."

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