Warning to readers: This outline is subject to change at any time. 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
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.
Chapter 2: Free speech and free software
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
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.
This chapter will also look in depth at Unix itself. Since Linux is a clone
of Unix, it will be worthwhile to get a sense of Unix's history and special
qualities. Some of these qualities go beyond the merely technical: There is
a whole culture to Unix that is different from other operating
systems. It's a culture responsible in part for the development of the
Internet -- part philosophy and part pragmatism.
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.
Chapter 3: The saint of free software: Richard Stallman goes it alone
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
Some of Stallman's story has been told before -- he is the subject of the
last chapter of Steven Levy's seminal "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer
Revolution." But Levy wrote his book in 1984. 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. Without his relentless
focus on the moral component of free software, the movement would lack one
of its most powerful motivating forces.
but Stallman is not universally beloved; he has also alienated vast numbers of programmers with his
authoritarian manner. This chapter will explore his controversial actions
and also begin to delve into one of the most fascinating aspects of the free
software story -- the evolution of a moral business strategy.
Chapter 4: 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
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.
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
Chapter 5: Guns, free software and libertarians
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.
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
ndependence -- 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
Chapter 6: The rise of the penguin: Linux and the plot for world domination
Linux is the biggest story in free software, the linchpin of the entire
movement. In chronological terms, Linux completes the journey that began at
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.
From Finland, Chapter 6 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?
Chapter 7: Inside the hacker brain
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
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.
Chapter 8: Death to Microsoft
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.
The pragmatic benefits offered by free software constitute the biggest
threat to Microsoft. How will Bill Gates and co. adapt?
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 moveis 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.
Chapter 11: Free software and the new economy
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.
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.