If you think JTS Moore’s new documentary would only interest computer geeks, you’re wrong. The subject isn’t just a computer operating system so much as the rules that define an industry integral to our culture and economy. Revealed here are the history and development of the Free Software and Open Source movements, culminating in the creation and success of LINUX, a fast and reliable alternative to Microsoft’s Windows operating system, the primary layer of software that operates our personal computers. Don’t expect this to get overly technical. That’s not the point. This is an exploration of issues, important ones like community, freedom, and control.
THE BIRTH OF THE STRUGGLE ^ This is about a struggle that arrived with the birth of the personal computer, or PC. When computers filled rooms, they ran programs largely custom written for their few users. A new low-end machine for the masses would never find success without affordable standardized software packages. The creation and marketing of such things quickly posed some new ethical questions, beginning with how you define legal ownership of software. A computer program is not a physical object. It’s only a pre-defined set of instructions for a processor to execute. When you purchase an application you’re not buying the program disks, you’re paying for a license to operate that program on your computer. Existing intellectual property laws were geared for industrial properties (inventions, designs, trademarks) or copyrighted materials (books, music, or artistic output for any medium).
As a kind of defined process, software can’t have a true physical manifestation or arguably viewed as the creative expression of its authors. Further complications arise because software really consists of two such sets. Its authors physically typed one set referred to as the source code. Those are written in a programming language a human can understand. The computer requires a different set, program files created by translating the source code with a “compiler”.
Intellectual ownership is the easiest issue to pin down. The rights belong to the authors and/or their employers. It’s not so clear-cut from here. First, If you write your own program that uses a completely different set of source code to create a program that performs and appears exactly the same as my own application, are you violating my rights? Can I for any reason deny you a license? If I sell you a license to use my software, how should I be able to limit what you can legally do with it after that? You might want to load the software on more than one machine or you might give the application to someone else after that. If something is wrong in the source code or if the program does not quite function as you require, you may want to alter it to produce an application that performs as you need. Now, modifications would require that you receive the source code, something most software publishers aren’t keen to hand over with the user license. Very rarely can you de-compile program files back into the source code, either.
Faced with these questions, you might wonder how the dawning computing and business communities answered them. At the heart of the film are the vocal responses that formed two schools of thought.
LAND OF THE FREE ^ Industry legend Richard Stallman became point man for what became known as the “Free Software” movement. That’s free in a sociological sense, not a monetary one. Specifically, it refers to the following freedoms for the user:
* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose. ^ * The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. ^ * The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor. ^ * The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. ^ Of course this can’t work without public access to the source code.
THE GREAT SATAN TO THE NORTH In the opposite corner was and is a guy by the name of Bill Gates. He started a little Washington-state company called Microsoft that produced and controlled a lot of important software for the burgeoning home PC market. The biggest expense to produce any software product is in developing and writing the source code. How could they recoup their costs if users could either copy or compile their own programs without paying for them? Bill and pals believed in a proprietary software product model; no source code included and a strictly defines license for use. The Free Software model, they argued, would severely impede the growth of the industry.
CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? ^ Eventually someone actually set foot in the middle-ground. At a mid-1990’s meeting of the minds, several Silicon Valley thinkers came up with the “Open Source” movement. As the successor to Free Software, Open Source maintained the same core beliefs but exchanged Stillman’s hippie influences and dogma for the believe that open software can peacefully co-exist with the proprietary stuff.
SATAN’S WINNING ^ You know what happened next. Due to amazingly bad decisions on the part of IBM, Microsoft owned exclusive rights to the operating system, or OS, necessary to operate the vast majority of personal computers. Since all other applications must run under the OS, Gates had enormous power to control the development and growth of the industry.
Stallman realized the only way to loosen Gates’ stranglehold was by providing a better, alternative OS for users. Based upon the more robust UNIX OS used by universities and corporations, Stallman’s GNU project would develop with the aid of outside contributors with public access to the source code. Unfortunately, difficulties inherent in his design left him eating the dust of Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds. Single-handedly he completed core components for his OS named LINUX. With much still left to be done, Torvalds applied Stallman’s beliefs allowing LINUX to become the product of a community of developers. What began with 1000 lines of code is today the sturdy backbone upon which millions of users rely. Has it now become a true threat to Microsoft?
Well, to some degree yes, but that’s not the point. The point is which models, intellectual or economic, should define how the software industry operates. Director Moore covers a lot of ground for the answer, but unfortunately his film is not exactly unbiased. Stallman, Torvalds, Eric Raymond, Bruce Perens, and many of the other major players on this issue are present, but they represent only one side. I couldn’t tell if anyone at Microsoft was ever asked or refused to participate, but any entity who’s vilified presence looms this large should be allowed to explain themselves. The closest we get is a rather hysterical reading of an open letter Gates wrote to the Free Software community in the 1970’s that explained his positions. The real issue is that as great and noble as many of the arguments presented here sound, some of them, particularly Stallman, really need to have their flaws pointed out a bit more forcefully.
The focus presented here on the development of the Free Software and Open Source movements doesn’t leave room for one other important story. While Moore examines what those at Microsoft have said in the past, he doesn’t take a hard look at what they’ve done. Ironically, one of the best arguments for Open Source is a study of how Microsoft has conducted itself over the last 25 years. For the highlights and an exploration of why Microsoft really objects to Open Source, you can read the companion feature to this review, REVOLUTION OS: HOW MICROSOFT CAN LOSE THE WAR.
Now don’t get me wrong, “Revolution OS” is a great film and an important one. This in-depth study of important developments of the computer industry should make it required viewing in university computer science departments for years to come. Just on a practical level, it indicates the community-oriented approach is not only the fastest way to fix problems, but can lead to a sort of “Natural Selection” method of improving software. Intellectually, the movie explores some fairly lofty ideals and demonstrates their implementation in a capitalist environment can be much more successful than you might think. It kind of gives you hope for the human race. As Open Source and LINUX realize their potential to exploit Microsoft’s weaknesses, Stallman and his comrades might actually fulfill one of their other dreams – to become Bill Gates worst nightmare.