It’s hard enough to make a subject as unsexy as open-source software appealing to nongeeks. Harder still when the cast in J.T.S. Moore’s documentary Revolution OS—mostly introverted, disheveled white men—fits every geek stereotype of the computer world. Moore introduces the uninitiated to the free-software movement, started in the early ’80s by hacker Richard Stallman. The first half of the film is basically a vocabulary lesson: defining free software (nonproprietary, not “free as in free beer,” as one person explains), GNU (“GNU’s not Unix”), and Linux (the operating system kernel created by Linus Torvalds). It would have benefited the film to center more on the David-vs.-Goliath conflicts between the free-software movement and Microsoft, or Stallman and Torvalds’s ideological nit-picking. Longhaired Stallman seems a ’60s holdover—he believes that free software is an “inalienable right.” Torvalds doesn’t see anything wrong with making a buck, yet still believes source code should be made available to programmers. (When investors became confused over the word “free” in free software, Torvalds and his team began using “open source” to refer to nonproprietary software.)
Intent on lionizing computer luminaries and the movement itself (subjects continually gush over Stallman or Torvalds), Moore skirts wider issues like intellectual-property rights, and fails to explain what makes Linux and other nonproprietary software useful for anyone who’s not a hardcore programmer. While Revolution OS bills itself as a documentary about an insurgency, and opens with a funny account from wild-eyed programmer Eric Raymond gravely telling a Microsoft employee, “I’m your worst nightmare,” the film never shows a true uprising against the Evil Empire. Glossing over the Microsoft antitrust trial, Moore takes surprisingly few potshots at Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. In the end, Revolution OS is less a revolutionary tale than a simple recounting of the recent past—as staid as the pages in a history book.