19. Core

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.


Projects in corporations have managers who report to other managers who report to the CEO who reports to the board. It's all very simple in theory, although it never really works that way in practice. The lines of control get crossed as people form alliances and struggle to keep their bosses happy.


Projects in the world of open source software, on the other hand, give everyone a copy of the source code and let them be the master of the code running on their machine. Everyone gets to be the Board of Directors, the CEO, and the cubicle serfs rolled into one. If a free software user doesn't like something, then he has the power to change it. You don't like that icon? Boom, it's gone. You don't want KDE on your desktop? Whoosh, it's out of there. No vice president in charge of MSN marketing in Redmond is going to force you to have an icon for easy connection to the Microsoft Network on your desktop. No graphic designer at Apple is going to force you to look at that two-faced Picasso-esque MacOS logo every morning of your life just because their marketing studies show that they need to build a strong brand identity. You're the captain of your free software ship and you decide the menu, the course, the arrangement of the deck chairs, the placement of lookouts from which to watch for icebergs, the type of soap, and the number of toothpicks per passenger to order. In theory, you're the Lord High Master and Most Exalted Ruler of all Software Big and Small, Wild and Wonderful, and Interpreted and Compiled on your machine.


In practice, no one has the time to use all of that power. It's downright boring to worry about soap and toothpicks. It's exhausting to rebuild window systems when they fail to meet your caviar-grade tastes in software.


No one has the disk space to maintain an Imelda Marcos-like collection of screen savers, window managers, layout engines, and games for your computer. So you start hanging around with some friends who want similar things and the next thing you know, you've got a group. A group needs leadership, so the alpha dog emerges. Pretty soon, it all begins to look like a corporate development team. Well, kind of.
Many neophytes in the free software world are often surprised to discover that most of the best free source code out there comes from teams that look surprisingly like corporate development groups. While the licenses and the rhetoric promise the freedom to go your own way, groups coalesce for many of the same reasons that wagon trains and convoys emerge. There's power in numbers. Sometimes these groups even get so serious that they incorporate. The Apache group recently formed the Apache Foundation, which has the job of guiding and supporting the development of the Apache web server. It's all very official looking. For all we know, they're putting cubicles in the foundation offices right now.


This instinct to work together is just as powerful a force in the free software world as the instinct to grab as much freedom as possible and use it every day. If anything, it's just an essential feature of human life. The founders of the United States of America created an entire constitution without mentioning political parties, but once they pushed the start button, the parties appeared out of nowhere.


These parties also emerged in the world of free source software. When projects grew larger than one person could safely handle, they usually evolved into development teams. The path for each group is somewhat different, and each one develops its own particular style. The strength of this organization is often the most important determinant of the strength of the software because if the people can work together well, then the problems in the software will be well fixed.


The most prevalent form of government in these communities is the benign dictatorship. Richard Stallman wrote some of the most important code in the GNU pantheon, and he continues to write new code and help maintain the old software. The world of the Linux kernel is dominated by Linus Torvalds. The original founders always seem to hold a strong sway over the group. Most of the code in the Linux kernel is written by others and checked out by a tight circle of friends, but Torvalds still has the final word on many changes.


The two of them are, of course, benign dictators, and the two of them don't really have any other choice. Both have a seemingly absolute amount of power, but this power is based on a mixture of personal affection and technical respect. There are no legal bounds that keep all of the developers in line. There are no rules about intellectual property or non-disclosure. Anyone can grab all of the Linux kernel or GNU source code, run off, and start making whatever changes they want. They could rename it FU, Bobux, Fredux, or Meganux and no one could stop them. The old threats of lawyers, guns, and money aren't anywhere to be seen.