WASHINGTON--Lurking just beneath the surface of the events surrounding Microsoft--last week's Federal appeals court victory, the launch of Windows 98, and the Justice Department's pending antitrust suit--is the prospect that the Seattle software giant could ultimately be undone by a rebellious computer community. Bill Gates might be able to fight off government attacks and beat down the competition, but his most dangerous opponent may well turn out to be a band of Internet insurgents--in particular those who have put together an operating system to rival his own.
Called Linux(and pronounced "LINN ooks"), the system is available free to anyone on the Internet. Its earliest version was created by Linus Torvalds, a 28-year-old Finn and hacker legend. In 1991, the University of Helsinki computer science student found himself technologically hamstrung by the thenprevailing system, Microsoft's clunky MS-DOS, and couldn't afford the $6000to $9000 needed to purchase the better Unix system that was used to run big university computers. "[I]n my ignorance and the ultimate arrogance of youth I just thought, 'Hey, I can do better than anything I've seen so far,' " he said recently. "As it happened I was right." Torvalds developed his system along Unix lines and, with the help of others, it soon became a full-fledged operating system.
But Linux didn't want the evolution of his system to stop there. To advance his program, he adopted a computer licensing scheme called "copyleft." Under copyleft, the author of a program waives the restrictions against reproducing or modifying it (and those making modifications must allow for those changes to be just as freely available). Specifically, copylefting means giving away the source code--the key part of a computer program.
Companies like Microsoft consider source codes their private property and keep them hidden from users. Since no one is allowed access to the secret of a program, users are left unable to fix or improve their own software. If there is a glitch or an omission, they are forced to wait until the company gets around to fixing it.
But Torvalds deliberately left Linux's source code open, essentially inviting programmers around the world to jump in and help build his system--to add innovations, solve problems, and, when scores of computers around the world were deliberately crashed, act as a global technological rescue squad. The Internet suddenly became the world's biggest factory floor for Linux, with programmers trying out ideas, bolting on parts, and composing bits of code to connect this or that. A giant mosaic of an operating system began to unfold. And nobody got paid a dime.
Hacker Eric Raymond described Torvalds's style of development as "release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity" in his influential paper The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which helped advance the Linux movement. "No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here," said Raymond of the operating system's evolution. "Rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches . . . out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles."
NO ONE WOULD suggest that Linux today is ready for a mass audience of AOL types, but the system that has emerged through trial and error is widely respected. Wired magazine says Linux "technologically eclipses all the other brands of Unix." And Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape, said that he expects Linux to become a "very serious" operating system and eventually be a threat to Microsoft.
About two dozen companies sell the Linux system, some for the $1.50 base price of a CD-ROM, while others peddle revved up versions with documentation or added applicationsfor about half of what Windows costs. And, of course, you can obtain it for free by downloading it off the Internet. There are now anywhere from 5 million to 7 million Linux users, which, of course, is minuscule next to the 100 millionplus Windows users or 50 million Macintosh users.
Still, upward of 25 per cent of Internet-server computers are Linux-based, according to Ransom Love, a general manager at Caldera, a Utah firm that sells Linux applications. One of the reasons for its growth, Love said, is that Linux is "very technologically sound--more stable, more reliable. . . . It is Unix reborn, less bloated and in a much less expensive package."
Linux earned some positive PR recently when it was revealed that it ran computers that created special effects for Titanic, and that it was used by NASA on computers that put together pictures of the earth taken from space. "Linux vendors say that most of the top companies in the U.S. have bought the OS," according to Wired. But "few will readily admit to running their multimillion-dollar corporations on code put together by a band of software idealists." And since it's free, Linux is particularly popular in countries just getting hooked into the computer age: Latin America, the former Soviet bloc, the Indian subcontinent, and the Philippines.
The evolutionary success Linux has shown--and the openness that made it happen--has had some influence on other parts of high-tech industry. Netscape Communications, for example, has unsealed the source code for its Web browser in order to improve the program and to increase its popularity with the democratic-minded Internet community. "By unleashing the creative power of thousands of programmers on the Internet and incorporating their best enhancements into future versions of Communicator, we think we can fuel great new levels of innovation in the browser market," explained Jim Barksdale, the CEO of Netscape.
WHAT THE INTERNATIONAL programmer community seems to be trying to tell Microsoft is that you can't stop the waves from breaking on a beach. The Linux phenomenon is not an old style, top-down "cathedral" enterprise à la J. P. Morgan or General Motors. It is organized from the bottom up, and it's the first time since the Industrial Revolution that consumers have built their own mass product with their own hands . . . for free. This is not something that can be turned around by courts or the lawyers in the Justice Department. And it won't be stopped by Microsoft.
One must look somewhere besides that software behemoth for the future of the industry. The way experts like Bob Jacobson see it, things will be much different "A.M." (After Microsoft). Jacobson, a senior consultant with the Business Intelligence Center, part of a large industrial research outfit, predicts that Microsoft will break up into five "Baby Softs"--independent companies, each with a share of the company's technological and marketing assets. One of those five would be a "Gates Foundation"--presumably operating in the same vein as Mellon or Rockefeller, with the purpose of quietly influencing public policy while loudly claiming to be acting in the name of the "public interest."
Raymond, in his paper on Linux, best sumed up why the computer industry should soon be following the path carved out by Torvalds: "I think the future of free software will increasingly belong to people who know how to play Linus's game, people who leave behind the cathedral and embrace the bazaar. . . . No commercial developer can match the pool of talent the Linux community can bring to bear on a problem. . . . Perhaps in the end the free-software culture will triumph not because cooperation is morally right or software 'hoarding' is morally wrong (assuming you believe the latter, which neither Linus nor I do), but simply because the commercial world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with free-software communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem."
Research assistance: Mark Maggiotti
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter