Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 7
Column Tag: Reviews
The rise of the free software and open source movements
by Andrew S. Downs
Every so often a movie comes along that tells a techie tale in just the right way. Making the rounds right now at film festivals and on various movie channels is an independent film called Revolution OS. Produced and directed by J.T.S. Moore, Revolution OS tells the story of the rise of the Free Software and Open Source movements. Using a combination of news bites, camera shots of Silicon Valley, and occasional statistics illustrating the increasing adoption of Linux and popularity of Linux-related Initial Public Offerings, the movie intersperses such teasers with interviews with key players in these movements.
The movie opens with Eric Raymond recounting an episode in which he encountered the Microsoft VP of Consumer Products at a conference. Eric concludes the encounter by telling the VP "I'm you're worst nightmare." This opening exchange sets the tone for the movie: a growing movement that threatens the dominance of Microsoft.
The talking head format used for these interviews works better than you might expect. The main players are introduced with little fanfare. This allows you to focus on the message that each relays. We meet several of the players in the opening minutes: Eric Raymond, Linus Torvalds, Bruce Perens, and Richard Stallman. The interviews show the passion as well as the facts. The small amount of narration and voiceover provides some variety in the presentation, and in no way detracts from the message. There is no evidence of "Hollywood" in this film.
The tech talk is light. The most complex topic discussed is the distinction between the monolithic kernel architecture of Linux and the microkernel-based GNU HURD. If you read Cliff Stoll's The Cuckoo's Egg, the superficial treatment of potentially complex topics is similar though engaging. This makes the movie accessible to a broader audience.
For example, Bruce Perens, the author of the Open Source Definition, discusses open source as a way for developers to collaborate on projects without restrictive intellectual property laws and contracts getting in the way. Those developers sacrifice intellectual property rights in an effort to increase the number of users of the software. This could easily have gotten bogged down in legal terminology, but Bruce makes the topic easily accessible.
We also find out that the connections between the philosopher Stallman, the engineer Torvalds, and the companies that aim to bring these products to market are based not on a bandwagon mentality but on real experience with the underlying products. Michael Tiemann of Cygnus Software and Larry Augustin of VA Linux Systems, who serve as the film's primary entrepreneurs, were both programmers who contributed to the GNU software code base earlier in their careers. No doubt this enhanced their ability to make otherwise free tools a commercial success.
Another indication of the symbiosis between companies and philosophers is Netscape's decision to release its browser source code (the Mozilla project) as open source based on the principles espoused in Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Fearing a Microsoft monopoly and perversion of HTML and HTTP, Netscape became the first commercial vendor to offer its source code as a product.
free vs. Open Source
The movie goes to great lengths to balance the discussion between the Free Software Movement and Open Source. Although Linux and Open Source receive the lion's share of media attention, we find out that Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation predate Open Source by ten years or so.
Free software and open source are not synonymous. Free software is more of a political stance than an economic one: "free" refers not to price but to philosophy. Free software can be used and modified without restriction. In the proprietary, single vendor or non-free software world we know this concept as piracy, except where very liberal licenses apply. Free software began as Richard Stallman's personal crusade about twenty years ago. Interviews with Richard in the movie clearly bring out the zeal and passion in the man. What started as a configurable text editor (Emacs) in the 1980s evolved along several non-contiguous paths, including the Free Software Foundation's GNU project and the Open Source movement where Linux and Apache remain the most obvious examples of successful projects into an essential element of our technology infrastructure. Some businesses base their products on code originating from free software.
Freedom to modify is a pillar of this philosophy. The responsibility accompanying that freedom comes in the form of the GNU Public License (GPL). The GPL states that distributing a product that uses free software within its core or periphery (derivatives of the GPL differ) requires the distributor or vendor to also distribute or make available the product source code so that others may enjoy the same freedom to use and modify.
One important question with regard to both free software and open source software (which by definition is free-of-charge) is "How do you make money?" At first blush it may appear impossible. After all, I or any programmer or hacker with a compiler can download, modify, and build the finished product. Then I can simply give it to my friends and coworkers, right?
Yes, you can if the license permits it. But your next question might be "How do I configure it for my system?" Or "Why did it not install properly on my system?" If you have time and desire you may be able to determine the answers on your own. But businesses typically do not plan for, pay for, or sometimes allow this experimentation to occur on their dime. They prefer to call or email someone else for support.
And there lies the answer to the moneymaking question. The rise in outsourcing encourages firms that specialize in support (including packaging, installation, configuration, and usage issues) of open source and free software products. Businesses can then expense support costs by purchasing a packaged GNU/Linux product from a vendor such as RedHat, Caldera, SuSE, or VA Linux and receive ongoing support from outside the company. This reduces or eliminates the need for in-house expertise, though pockets of knowledge within the company will remain and likely grow.
Microsoft's role in the movie is cannon fodder for several anecdotal episodes discussing encounters between free software and open source luminaries and Microsoft managers and the company-at-large. One of the most memorable is Bill Gates' 1976 letter to the Homebrew Computer Club, in which he verbally clubs those developers who used Microsoft's BASIC compiler without paying for it. In contrast, the Windows Refund Day protest in 1999 provided less drama, since Microsoft provided drinks rather than water cannons when the protestors showed up at their building. But the movie is not a Microsoft bashfest. Rather, it illustrates the reasons behind the rise of open source and free software. These people changed the world in response to the proprietary software philosophy, of which Microsoft is the most visible proponent.
So where is the Apple and Mac OS connection in all this? The movie discusses free software (the GNU tools) and open source (Berkeley Unix) products that are familiar territory to Mac OS developers with the rise of OS X. The GNU development tools lie at the center of Project Builder, the development environment that ships with OS X. Berkeley Unix, itself an attempt to bring freedom to the category of operating systems by competing with AT&T's proprietary Unix, has over the years given rise to offshoots that use open source and collaboration as their development philosophy. FreeBSD is one of those offshoots and sits near the core of OS X. (The Mach microkernel resides underneath. Mach is another open source project that receives little air time in the movie but broke new ground in kernel development.)
At the other end of the Mac OS spectrum are technologies such as Aqua and QuickTime that are unlikely to become open source candidates since they are key to differentiating Mac OS from competing operating systems.
In the middle lie extensions to the kernel and BSD subsystems, including Directory Services and Rendezvous. These remain open source projects maintained by Apple and interested developers outside the company.
I enjoyed this movie, but it may leave some technophiles longing for more. Its treatment of technical issues is light. If you find the movie intriguing or simply want to learn more about the people, ideas, and products involved, here are several books you should consider reading:
The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, by Eric S. Raymond, 1999, 2001. O'Reilly and Associates, Inc. The essays in this book capture the essence of the open source philosophy and attempt to quantify and explain the "why" behind the "what".
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software, by Sam Williams, 2002. O'Reilly and Associates, Inc. This book presents Richard Stallman's free software philosophy and history through recaps of interviews with the man himself and other sources.
Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, 2001. HarperCollins. Half-written by Linus Torvalds, with the balance consisting of interview recaps, this book provides insight into Linus' character and views on life, Linux, and the pursuit of family.
Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution, edited by Chris DiBona, Sam Ockman, and Mark Stone, 1999. O'Reilly and Associates, Inc. This contains essays by Stallman, Raymond, Torvalds, Perens, Tiemann and others.
Rebel Code: The Inside Story of Linux and the Open Source Revolution, by Glyn Moody, 2001. Perseus Publishing. An account of the rise of Linux from a spare-time college project to its dominance today.
Also, check out the Revolution OS web site at http://www.revolution-os.com/.
Andrew writes embedded system software in New Orleans, LA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.