3.2 Suits Against Hackers

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Schmalensee and Cox couldn't be more different from each other. One is a career technocrat who moves easily between the government and MIT. The other is what used to be known as an absentminded professor--the kind who works when he's really interested in a problem. It just so happens that Cox is pretty intrigued with building a better operating system than the various editions of Windows that form the basis of Microsoft's domination of the computer industry.

The battle between Linux and Microsoft is lining up to be the classic fight between the people like Schmalensee and the people like Cox. On one side are the armies of lawyers, lobbyists, salesmen, and expensive executives who are armed with patents, lawsuits, and legislation. They are skilled at moving the levers of power until the gears line up just right and billions of dollars pour into their pockets. They know how to schmooze, toady, beg, or even threaten until they wear the mantle of authority and command the piety and devotion of the world. People buy Microsoft because it's "the standard." No one decreed this, but somehow it has come to be.

On the other side are a bunch of guys who just like playing with computers and will do anything to take them apart. They're not like the guy in the song by John Mellencamp who sings "I fight authority and authority always wins." Some might have an attitude, but most just want to look at the insides of their computers and rearrange them to hook up to coffee machines or networks. They want to fidget with the guts of their machines. If they weld some spaghetti to the insides, so be it.

Normally, these battles between the suits and the geeks don't threaten the established order. There are university students around the world building solar-powered cars, but they don't actually pose a threat to the oil or auto industries. "21," a restaurant in New York, makes a great hamburger, but they're not going to put McDonald's out of business. The experimentalists and the perfectionists don't usually knock heads with the corporations who depend upon world domination for their profits. Except when it comes to software.

Software is different from cars or hamburgers. Once someone writes the source code, copying the source costs next to nothing. That makes it much easier for tinkerers like Cox to have a global effect. If Cox, Stallman, Torvalds, and his chums just happen to luck upon something that's better than Microsoft, then the rest of the world can share their invention for next to nothing. That's what makes Cox, Torvalds, and their buddies a credible threat no matter how often they sleep late.

It's easy to get high off of the idea alone. A few guys sleeping late and working in bedrooms aren't supposed to catch up to a cash engine like Microsoft. They aren't supposed to create a webserving engine that controls more than half of the web. They aren't supposed to create a graphical user interface for drawing windows and icons on the screen that's much better than Windows. They aren't supposed to create supercomputers with sticker prices of $3,000. Money isn't supposed to lose.

Of course, the folks who are working on free software projects have advantages that money can't buy. These programmers don't need lawyers to create licenses, negotiate contracts, or argue over terms. Their software is free, and lawyers lose interest pretty quickly when there's no money around. The free software guys don't need to scrutinize advertising copy. Anyone can download the software and just try it. The programmers also don't need to sit in the corner when their computer crashes and complain about the idiot who wrote the software. Anyone can read the source code and fix the glitches.

The folks in the free source software world are, in other words, grooving on freedom. They're high on the original American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The founders of the United States of America didn't set out to create a wealthy country where citizens spent their days worrying whether they would be able to afford new sport utility vehicles when the stock options were vested. The founders just wanted to secure the blessings of liberty for posterity. Somehow, the wealth followed.

This beautiful story is easy to embrace: a group of people started out swapping cool software on the Net and ended up discovering that their free sharing created better software than what a corporation could produce with a mountain of cash.

The programmers found that unrestricted cooperation made it easy for everyone to contribute. No price tags kept others away. No stereotypes or biases excluded anyone. The software and the source code were on the Net for anyone to read.

Wide-open cooperation also turned out to be wide-open competition because the best software won the greatest attention. The corporate weasels with the ear of the president could not stop a free source software project from shipping. No reorganization or downsizing could stop people from working on free software if they wanted to hack. The freedom to create was more powerful than money.

That's an idyllic picture, and the early success of Linux, FreeBSD, and other free packages makes it tempting to think that the success will build. Today, open source servers power more than 50 percent of the web servers on the Internet, and that is no small accomplishment. Getting thousands, if not millions, of programmers to work together is quite amazing given how quirky programmers can be. The ease of copying makes it possible to think that Alan Cox could get up late and still move the world.

But the 1960s were also an allegedly idyllic time when peace, love, and sharing were going to create a beautiful planet where everyone gave to everyone else in an eternal golden braid of mutual respect and caring. Everyone assumed that the same spirit that so quickly and easily permeated the college campuses and lovefests in the parks was bound to sweep the world. The communes were really happening, man. But somehow, the groovy beat never caught on beyond those small nests of easy caring and giving. Somehow, the folks started dropping back in, getting real jobs, taking on real mortgages, and buying back into the world where money was king.

Over the years, the same sad ending has befallen many communes, utopian visions, and hypnotic vibes. Freedom is great. It allows brilliant inventors to work independently of the wheels of power. But capital is another powerful beast that drives innovation. The great communes often failed because they never converted their hard work into money, making it difficult for them to save and invest. Giving things away may be, like, really groovy, but it doesn't build a nest egg.

Right now, the free software movement stands at a crucial moment in its history. In the past, a culture of giving and wide-open sharing let thousands of programmers build a great operating system that was, in many ways, better than anything coming from the best companies. Many folks began working on Linux, FreeBSD, and thousands of other projects as hobbies, but now they're waking up to find IBM, HewlettPackard, Apple, and all the other big boys pounding on their door. If the kids could create something as nice as Linux, everyone began to wonder whether these kids really had enough good stuff to go the distance and last nine innings against the greatest power hitters around.

Perhaps the free software movement will just grow faster and better as more people hop on board. More users mean more eyes looking for bugs. More users mean more programmers writing new source code for new features. More is better.

On the other hand, sharing may be neat, but can it beat the power of capital? Microsoft's employees may be just serfs motivated by the dream that someday their meager stock options will be worth enough to retire upon, but they have a huge pile of cash driving them forward. This capital can be shifted very quickly. If Bill Gates wants 1,000 programmers to create something, he can wave his hand. If he wants to buy 1,000 computers, it takes him a second. That's the power of capital.

Linus Torvalds may be on the cover of magazines, but he can't do anything with the wave of a hand. He must charm and cajole the thousands of folks on the Linux mailing list to make a change. Many of the free software projects may generate great code, but they have to beg for computers. The programmers might even surprise him and come up with an even better solution. They've done it in the past. But no money means that no one has to do what anyone says.

In the past, the free software movement was like the movies in which Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland put on a great show in the barn. That part won't change. Cool kids with a dream will still be spinning up great programs that will be wonderful gifts for the world.

But shows that are charming and fresh in a barn can become thin and weak on a big stage on Broadway. The glitches and raw functionality of Linux and free software don't seem too bad if you know that they're built by kids in their spare time. Building real tools for real companies, moms, police stations, and serious users everywhere is another matter. Everyone may be hoping that sharing, caring, and curiosity are enough, but no one knows for certain. Maybe capital will end up winning. Maybe it won't. It's freedom versus assurance; it's wide-open sharing versus stock options; it's cooperation versus intimidation; it's the geeks versus the suits, all in one knockdown, hack-till-you-drop, winner-take-everything fight.