8.2 A Different Kind of Trial

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During the early months of Torvalds's work, the BSD group was stuck in a legal swamp. While the BSD team was involved with secret settlement talks and secret depositions, Linus Torvalds was happily writing code and sharing it with the world on the Net. His life wasn't all peaches and cream, but all of his hassles were open. Professor Andy Tanenbaum, a fairly well-respected and famous computer scientist, got in a long, extended debate with Torvalds over the structure of Linux. He looked down at Linux and claimed that Linux would have been worth two F's in his class because of its design. This led to a big flame war that was every bit as nasty as the fight between Berkeley and AT&T's USL. In fact, to the average observer it was even nastier. Torvalds returned Tanenbaum's fire with strong words like "fiasco," "brain-damages," and "suck." He brushed off the bad grades by pointing out that Albert Einstein supposedly got bad grades in math and physics. The highpriced lawyers working for AT&T and Berkeley probably used very expensive and polite words to try and hide the shivs they were trying to stick in each other's back. Torvalds and Tanenbaum pulled out each other's virtual hair like a squawkfest on the Jerry Springer show.

But Torvalds's flame war with Tanenbaum occurred in the open in an Internet newsgroup. Other folks could read it, think about it, add their two cents' worth, and even take sides. It was a wide-open debate that uncovered many flaws in the original versions of Linux and Tanenbaum's Minix. They forced Torvalds to think deeply about what he wanted to do with Linux and consider its flaws. He had to listen to the arguments of a critic and a number of his peers on the Net and then come up with arguments as to why his Linux kernel didn't suck too badly.

This open fight had a very different effect from the one going on in the legal system. Developers and UNIX hackers avoided the various free versions of BSD because of the legal cloud. If a judge decided that AT&T and USL were right, everyone would have to abandon their work on the platform. While the CSRG worked hard to get free, judges don't always make the choices we want.

The fight between Torvalds and Tanenbaum, however, drew people into the project. Other programmers like David Miller, Ted T'so, and Peter da Silva chimed in with their opinions. At the time, they were just interested bystanders. In time, they became part of the Linux brain trust. Soon they were contributing source code that ran on Linux. The argument's excitement forced them to look at Torvalds's toy OS and try to decide whether his defense made any sense. Today, David Miller is one of the biggest contributors to the Linux kernel. Many of the original debaters became major contributors to the foundations of Linux.
This fight drew folks in and kept them involved. It showed that Torvalds was serious about the project and willing to think about its limitations. More important, it exposed these limitations and inspired other folks on the Net to step forward and try to fix them. Everyone could read the arguments and jump in. Even now, you can dig up the archives of this battle and read in excruciating detail what people were thinking and doing. The AT&T/USL-versus-Berkeley fight is still sealed.

To this day, all of the devotees of the various BSDs grit their teeth when they hear about Linux. They think that FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD are better, and they have good reasons for these beliefs. They know they were out the door first with a complete running system. But Linux is on the cover of the magazines. All of the great technically unwashed are now starting to use "Linux" as a synonym for free software. If AT&T never sued, the BSD teams would be the ones reaping the glory. They would be the ones to whom Microsoft turned when it needed a plausible competitor. They would be more famous.

But that's crying over spilled milk. The Berkeley CSRG lived a life of relative luxury in their world made fat with big corporate and government donations. They took the cash, and it was only a matter of time before someone called them on it. Yes, they won in the end, but it came too late. Torvalds was already out of the gate and attracting more disciples.

McKusick says, "If you plot the installation base of Linux and BSD over the last five years, you'll see that they're both in exponential growth. But BSD's about eighteen to twenty months behind. That's about how long it took between Net Release 2 and the unencumbered 4.4BSD-Lite. That's about how long it took for the court system to do its job."