Complete book outline


Salon Staff
March 5, 2000 9:30PM (UTC)

Warning to readers: This outline is subject to change at any time. In fact, the outline you are currently reading is not the original outline posted at the launch of the Free Software Project. After the first month, I became frustrated with the delays inherent in waiting until I had complete, 10 to 15,000 word-long chapters before posting them. So I have now broken down the original chapter divisions into shorter chunks. I'm hoping that this will accelerate the process of writing and uploading each section.

Ideally, this will also increase flexibility. The story of free software is ongoing, and as events warrant I would like to incorporate coverage of them into the main narrative. So if for example, a Linux company goes bankrupt, it might then be appropriate to cover that in the context of a section on the perils of going public as a free software enterprise. Or, as is the case with the current (April 20th, 2000) installment, if circumstances allow me to travel to Finland I can then write about the experience, even though Finland wasn't originally scheduled to be covered until Chapter 6, as part of the introduction to Linux and Linus Torvalds.

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It is most unlikely that this will be the last change in plans. The order of the chapters may be changed, new chapters may be added, sections may be moved from one chapter to another. I'm also always interested in suggestions as to what should be covered that isn't mentioned here. I consider this outline a plan of action, but I doubt that it will map perfectly to the final product.

If you're curious you can still look at the old outline.
--Andrew Leonard

Chapter 1: Boot time

This introductory chapter examines some of the potential starting points for the story of free software, ranging as far back as the 11th century and as recently as the summer of 1999. The main goal of this chapter is to give readers a sense of just how broad and far-reaching the implications of free software are. The global economy, free speech and censorship, intellectual property, the rise and fall of monopoly power, the history of the Net -- these are just some of the issues that will be explored in future chapters. This chapter is meant to be comprehensible to people who aren't experts in software or computer technology; later chapters will delve deeper. (This section of the outline is unchanged from the original version).

Chapter 2: Free speech and free software

Part I:

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What do free speech and free software have in common? Much has been made by computer historians of the intersection between the counterculture of the Bay Area and the early history of the personal computer. One story that hasn't been told very often is the role the computer science department at Berkeley played in the growth of the Internet, the spread of Unix and the eventual blossoming of free software.

Not everyone at UC Berkeley was a Free Speech Movement veteran or anti-Vietnam War protester, of course. Prodigal programmer Bill Joy didn't pay too much attention to politics in the mid-'70s -- he was too busy rewriting AT&T Unix from top to bottom, and redistributing his changes as the Berkeley Software Distribution, or BSD. BSD became very popular with academics and Internet geeks all over the world, and once Joy's team added networking capabilities to it, BSD evolved into the lingua franca of the Internet.

I will argue that the contribution Berkeley made to networking, Unix and the Net can be seen as just as important as the contribution Berkeley made to radical politics in the 1970s. And indeed, for some of the Berkeley researchers, getting the Net to the people was the biggest contribution to the idea of free speech that they could make.

Part II:

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Bill Joy and the other BSD hackers were working in the context of Unix. Linux, too, is in the Unix family tree. Is there something different about Unix that encourages cooperation? Or is there something different about Unix that attracts idiosyncratic independent minded cusses? I'd answer both questions in affirmative. In a technical sense, Unix is all about networking, that's why it has flourished on the Net and has helped the Net flourish. But there's also a culture to Unix that sets it and its related languages and programs apart. Unix is different from Windows in profound cultural ways, just as the MacOS is different from Windows, in quite different, but equally profound ways.

What does it mean to say that Unix has a culture. Part II of Chapter 1 will be The Free Software Project's first stab at exploring the culture inherent in various strains of code. Perl, for example, attracts a certain type of hacker -- I'd like to know why and how? How much credit can we give to Unix's original creators? And how does Unix differ from the culture of Linux?

Chapter 3: The saint of free software: Richard Stallman goes it alone.

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More than any other single person, Richard Stallman is responsible for incubating both the idea and the reality of free software. He has been profiled countless times, including once by myself, so I'd like to approach the chapter on him from two directions.

Part I: Richard Stallman -- virus or prophet?

Even as the Internet was gaining momentum and the Berkeley researchers were pumping out new versions of Unix, back on the East Coast the "hacker ethic" was under concerted assault. Although MIT is widely credited as the birthplace of hacker culture, by the early 1980s it was beginning to look more like a graveyard. No one felt the chill more than Richard Stallman, who watched in dismay as one colleague after another left the ivory tower to work in the private sector. No longer was he allowed to share the benefits of their work; no longer was software considered the property of all. Now, everything was proprietary.

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Today, the Free Software Foundation that Stallman founded in 1984 is credited as the single most important force in resisting the advance of proprietary-only software. During hacking's darkest hour, Stallman kept the light of free software freedom aflame, persevering bullheadedly against all odds in his project to write free software that everyone could use. Without the tools that he created, the development of Linux and countless other free software programs would have been extraordinarily difficult.

Stallman has an opinion on everything, and the current high profile of free software has given him a bigger pulpit from which to declaim from than ever before. Patents, the Microsoft trial, free manuals, copyright, in this section I'll give a comprehensive a look at both the person and the ideas. But I'll do it from a specific angle -- is Richard Stallman a human virus. His GPL license has been criticized as an anti-capitalist virus. What about the person himself. What kind of effect is he having?

Part II: Becoming the virus

Both parts of Chapter 3 will be written using only free software. This will require some learning on my part, and probably won't be as comfortable for me as if I used a proprietary editor. But for Stallman, comfort isn't the issue. Morality is. Some people just feel better using free software. The psychology of the users of free software is as important as the technical construction of that software.

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Why do programmers love free software? Why does Linux command such ferocious fandom? The reasons go beyond just the rewards of creating or working with efficient, bug-free software and don't necessarily dovetail with political or moral motivations.

Writer Ellen Ullman calls it the "close to the machine" factor. With free software, you can get your hands dirty, you can fix problems as they arise, and you have the sense that your computer's innards are accessible to you. While this isn't always attractive to everyone -- most average computer users don't really want to muck around with a computer's insides -- it does have a potent appeal to some people who don't consider themselves programmers.

With free software, everyone can become a programmer -- or at the very least a member of a greater programming community. As one learns how to configure a free software program on one's own computer, one naturally turns to the community for help and hints, and in the process of learning, becomes a member of that community who can help others.

There is a psychological attraction to free software. There is a poetry to code, an exhilaration that comes from successful programming, no matter how trivial. Free software programming allows the purest kind of programming satisfaction -- to an almost spiritual degree. This chapter will examine the psychological motivations fueling free software excitement, and will also give the author a chance to detail his own personal journey into the world of free software. Part II will be a plunge into that psychology from a user's perspective.

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Chapter 4: The Internet and Free Software

Part I: Duct tape for the Net: A Perl beyond price

The Internet's growth from a government project that linked university research centers together into one of the most important organisms of society at the close of the 20th century has been told many times. What hasn't been previously recounted, however, is the role that free software hackers played in the Internet's evolution. Chapter IV will show how the Internet and the free software movement are linked together in a positively reinforcing feedback loop: The hackers improve the Net, and the Net enhances the quality of hacker productivity.

One entry point for telling this part of the story is Larry Wall, the creator of the programming language Perl. There would be no Yahoo without Larry Wall -- and no Amazon either, not to mention a million other Web sites. Perl is to the World Wide Web as mortar is to a building made out of bricks. It is the glue language, the thing that stitches everything together. It has made possible a whole new generation of Web-based businesses.

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That alone would be enough reason to pay attention to Wall. But that was hardly his first major achievement. In the early 80s, Wall also wrote a little program called "patch." It didn't do much, and wasn't very complicated. Its main purpose was to allow programmers to upgrade their versions of much larger programs without having to get a whole brand new copy of the program delivered over the Net -- an ordeal that could cost time and money back in the old, low-bandwidth days of the Net. Patch turned out to have huge consequences for the Internet. With patch, programmers could make their own changes to programs and distribute them quickly and efficiently across the Net. Patch made possible the style of collaborative software development that later resulted in the success stories of Linux, Apache, Perl and the rest of the free software pantheon.

Part II: The Web and Free Software

The second section of Chapter 4 will focus on how free software tools have made the new era of Web-based businesses possible. But it will also begin to take a more critical look at some aspects of free software culture. For example, there's the problem of the "benevolent dictatorship" model that most free software projects operate under. Despite the "organized anarchy" that prevails in Net-based free software projects, the most successful usually have one central charismatic leader who makes ultimate decisions. The "community" must support those decisions for them to be effective, but without a strong leader, free software projects often founder. What does this say about the scalability of free software business models -- or their long-term stability?

Chapter 5: Guns, free software and libertarians

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Part I: Eric Raymond

Chronologically, chapter 5 takes the story of free software from Stallman's lonely isolation to the mass movement that is dominating press headlines in the late '90s. Eric Raymond, the self-described "technopagan libertarian" and leading spokesman for free software, is the central focus of the chapter. Raymond, the author of several books and numerous influential articles, is also the premier anthropologist and folk historian of hacker culture. Chapter 5 will continue the exploration of the hacker psyche, with particular emphasis on the libertarian component.

Part II: The politics of software

A consideration of libertarianism is essential to the discussion of free software. Libertarian culture has always thrived on the Net, and the economic model of free software -- which emphasizes grassroots independence -- is psychologically attractive to libertarians. But the "free software movement" is often accused of being a thinly disguised left-wing attack on business. And indeed, a significant number of the software developers who work on free software projects live outside of the United States and are motivated by suspicion and distrust of American-style capitalism.

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Chapter 6: The rise of the penguin: Linux and the plot for world domination

Part I: The Lore-masters of Finland.

The story of Linux starts in Finland, where an undergraduate at the University of Helsinki first started fooling around with ideas for his own operating system. I will be visiting Finland at the end of March, so this chapter will start there as well. Finland is enormously technologically advanced for a country its size, and Finnish programmers have played a role in the Internet's development that long predates the rise of Linux.

Part II: Linus Torvalds and the creation of Linux.

How did it happen? Who is Linus Torvalds? What does he think? How is he different from the other free software hackers. The second section will trace the rise of Linux to its current incarnation as one of the most exciting stories in the computing world today. How did this happen?
Linux is the biggest story in free software, the linchpin of the entire movement. In chronological terms, Linux completes the journey that began at Bell Labs.

Chapter 7: The rise, (and fall?) of the New Linux Economy

Part I: IPO madness!

1999 was the year the stock market went crazy of Linux.

Part II: IPO despair!

2000 was the year the stock market suddenly hated Linux.

These two sections, together, will try to untangle the stormy ups and downs of the market's infatuation and then, subsequently, disgust for Linux. What can we learn about how the stock market, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the technology industry are feeding off each other from the experience of Linux? Is it even possible that Linux can be commercialized. What are the venture capitalists thinking?

Even long-time advocates of free software were stunned by the events of 1999. Suddenly, as viewed by the investment community, venture capitalists and day-traders, Linux achieved the same buzzword status as earlier concepts like "push" and portals. Companies like Red Hat and VA Linux had huge initial public offerings, giving them stock valuations high enough to purchase other companies, hire scores of programmers, and begin to subsidize the creation of even more free software on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

Is this just another example of dot-com hype gone mad? Is Wall Street being hornswoggled? Or is something deeper happening -- is the free market recognizing the lasting value of free software? Chapter 11 will examine the intersection of the so-called New Economy with the economy of free software, and explore the problems that may arise when the desires of shareholders in publicly traded companies clash with the fiercely held community values of free software hackers.

Chapter 8: Death to Microsoft

Part I: Microsoft vs. The Gift Economy

The central conflict in the free software saga can be summed up as a showdown between the status quo of Silicon Valley-style capitalism and the new information economy of the Net.

Free software developers operate in a kind of "gift economy." This, of course, is not how Microsoft -- or most other software or computer hardware producing corporations -- plays the game. Instead, it seeks to guard its intellectual property, or, if a competitor appears on the scene, purchase it. Patent applications, non-disclosure agreements, license agreements: the structure of techno-capitalism is built on the control of information.

The success of the free software movement offers hope that there may be new strategies possible for propelling a productive economy -- strategies that don't depend on enforcing artificial limitations on how people are allowed to cooperate or share information. It's possible that this new model may only work in the realm of software, but there may also be applications in other arenas of social endeavor -- one of the sub-themes of this book will be to look for those other arenas.

Will free software topple Microsoft? What does Bill Gates really think about Linux? How will Microsoft attempt to co-opt the movement? Gates has successfully reengineered Microsoft at least once, turning the company around on a dime to "embrace and extend" the Internet. Can he do the same with free software?

A consideration of Microsoft will lead to the wider question of what free software will mean for the entire software industry. In a growing number of cases, free software programs are qualitatively better than their proprietary commercial alternatives -- faster and smarter as well as, obviously, cheaper. Linux has a surging reputation for stability and reliability that many advocates swear puts Microsoft to shame. Apache, a Web server program that operates Web sites, is by far the most popular product of its kind. Through the release of their source code to the general public, free software programs benefit from unparalleled "peer review" -- from having thousands upon thousands of programmers hammer on the code, fix bugs and test it under every possible condition. Software today is becoming unthinkably huge and complex -- Windows NT, Microsoft's industrial-strength operating system, is reputed to consist of a whopping 35 million lines of code. In this era, the distributed resources of the entire Internet constitute the only environment large enough to adequately test all the possible mishaps that might befall so complex a computer program.

Part II: Free software, monopolies, and government action.

The pragmatic benefits offered by free software constitute the biggest threat to Microsoft. How will Bill Gates and co. adapt?

Finally, this chapter will also attempt to place free software in the context of government-business interaction. Since one of the starting points of free software was government restrictions placed on AT&T, and one of the current focal points of free software is Microsoft, it will be useful, in this politically-minded chapter, to consider how monopoly power and government interaction can intersect with and affect the world of software.

(N.B.: As of April, the last three chapters do not yet lend themselves to modularization. But that could well change!)

Chapter 9: Free to be, you and me

MP3. DVD. Copyrights, patents, and software piracy: No issue in the current world of software is more divisive, more hotly contested, and more unsettled than the question of ownership of code -- not just in terms of software, but in terms of entertainment and media. It's not an accident that some of the most vocal fans of free software are also busy trading MP3s or reverse engineering encryption protections for DVD players. Music and moves are software, today, and the Internet is, at the very least, the most effective distribution vehicle for such software ever invented.

Push is coming to shove here, and no one knows how the story will play out. Will the defenders of intellectual property be able to hold off the barbarians of the Net? Or will new technological realities force accommodation? Even as corporations race to patent anything and everything they can, and pour hundreds of millions of dollars into defending copyright and attacking software "piracy," the Net is forcing new business models and new ways of thinking on the entire world.

Chapter 10: Free software bootstrapping the world

One can argue that every dollar Microsoft spends attacking software piracy in the third world is a dollar of advertising for Linux and free software. Already, countries like India and China are taking a close look at Linux; it's cheap, it's not tied exclusively to an American corporation and it can be adapted to fit every local need. Free software is a great bootstrapping tool for countries short on resources.

One of the most intriguing points about this is that free software is in large part the product of the most privileged classes of the First World. Programmers, by and large, are paid so well that they can afford to take on hobbies like free software projects in their spare time. And in doing so, they are creating an infrastructure of tools that the whole world can and will benefit from.

Epilogue: The greatest gift

Even if Microsoft isn't toppled by free software, even if Linux doesn't displace Windows 2000 and even if the fundamental dynamics of the information market economy are not completely transformed by the free software movement, the possibility that we have been offered a different path to take is valuable in its own right. The Internet encourages people to work together, if not for profit, then for fun. In the new gift economy, that might be the greatest gift of all.


Salon Staff

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