9.2 Making it Easy to Use

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In 1994, getting Linux to run was never really as simple as putting the CD-ROM in the drive and pressing a button. Many of the programs didn't work with certain video cards. Some modems didn't talk to Linux. Not all of the printers communicated correctly. Yet most of the software worked together on many standard machines. It often took a bit of tweaking, but most people could get the OS up and running on their computers.

This was a major advance for the Linux OS because most people could quickly install a new version without spending too much time downloading the new code or debugging it. Even programmers who understood exactly what was happening felt that installing a new version was a long, often painful slog through technical details. These CDROMs not only helped programmers, they also encouraged casual users to experiment with the system.

The CD-ROM marketplace also created a new kind of volunteer for the project. Someone had to download the latest code from the author. Someone had to watch the kernel mailing list to see when Torvalds, Cox, and the rest had minted a new version that was stable enough to release. Someone needed to check all the other packages like GNU Emacs or GNU CC to make sure they still worked correctly. This didn't require the obsessive programming talent that created the kernel, but it did take some dedication and devotion.
Today, there are many different kinds of volunteers putting together these packages. The Debian group, for instance, is one of the best known and most devoted to true open source principles. It was started by Ian Murdock, who named it after himself and his girlfriend, Debra. The Debian group, which now includes hundreds of official members, checks to make sure that the software is both technically sound and politically correct. That is, they check the licenses to make sure that the software can be freely distributed by all users. Their guidelines later morphed into the official definition of open source software.

Other CD-ROM groups became more commercial. Debian sold its disks to pay for Internet connection fees and other expenses, but they were largely a garage operation. So were groups with names like Slackware, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD. Other groups like Red Hat actually set out to create a burgeoning business, and to a large extent, they succeeded. They took the money and used it to pay programmers who wrote more software to make Linux easier to use.

In the beginning, there wasn't much difference between the commercially minded groups like Red Hat and the more idealistic collectives like Debian. The marketplace was small, fragmented, and tribal. But by 1998, Red Hat had attracted major funding from companies like Intel, and it plowed more and more money into making the package as presentable and easy to use as possible. This investment paid off because more users turned instinctively to Red Hat, whose CD-ROM sales then exploded.

Most of this development lived in its own Shangri-La. Red Hat, for instance, charged money for its disks, but released all of its software under the GPL. Others could copy their disks for free, and many did. Red Hat may be a company, but the management realized that they depended on thousands if not millions of unpaid volunteers to create their product.

Slowly but surely, more and more people became aware of Linux, the GNU project, and its cousins like FreeBSD. No one was making much money off the stuff, but the word of mouth was spreading very quickly. The disks were priced reasonably, and people were curious. The GPL encouraged people to share. People began borrowing disks from their friends. Some companies even manufactured cheap rip-off copies of the CD-ROMs, an act that the GPL encouraged.

At the top of the pyramid was Linus Torvalds. Many Linux developers treated him like the king of all he surveyed, but he was like the monarchs who were denuded by a popular constitutional democracy. He had always focused on building a fast, stable kernel, and that was what he continued to do. The rest of the excitement, the packaging, the features, and the toys, were the dominion of the volunteers and contributors.

Torvalds never said much about the world outside his kernel, and it developed without him.
Torvalds moved to Silicon Valley and took a job with the very secret company Transmeta in order to help design the next generation of computer chips. He worked out a special deal with the company that allowed him to work on Linux in his spare time. He felt that working for one of the companies like Red Hat would give that one version of Linux a special imprimatur, and he wanted to avoid that. Plus, Transmeta was doing cool things.
In January 1999, the world caught up with the pioneers. Schmalensee mentioned Linux on the witness stand during the trial and served official notice to the world that Microsoft was worried about the growth of Linux. The system had been on the company's radar screen for some time. In October 1998, an internal memo from Microsoft describing the threat made its way to the press. Some thought it was just Microsoft's way of currying favor during the antitrust investigation. Others thought it was a serious treatment of a topic that was difficult for the company to understand.

The media followed Schmalensee's lead. Everyone wanted to know about Linux, GNU, open source software, and the magical effects of widespread, unconditional sharing. The questions came in tidal waves, and Torvalds tried to answer them again and again. Was he sorry he gave it all away? No. If he charged anything, no one would have bought his toy and no one would have contributed anything. Was he a communist? No, he was rather apolitical. Don't programmers have to eat? Yes, but they will make their money selling a service instead of getting rich off bad proprietary code. Was Linux going to overtake Microsoft? Yes, if he had his way. World Domination Soon became the motto.

But there were also difficult questions. How would the Linux world resist the embrace of big companies like IBM, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and maybe even Microsoft? These were massive companies with paid programmers and schedules to meet. All the open source software was just as free to them as anyone else. Would these companies use their strength to monopolize Linux?

Some were worried that the money would tear apart the open source community. It's easy to get everyone to donate their time to a project when no one is getting paid. Money changes the equation. Would a gulf develop between the rich companies like Red Hat and the poor programmers who just gave away their hard work?
Many wanted to know when Linux would become easier to use for nonprogrammers. Programmers built the OS to be easy to take apart and put back together again. That's a great feature if you like hacking the inside of a kernel, but that doesn't excite the average computer user. How was the open source community going to get the programmers to donate their time to fix the mundane, everyday glitches that confused and infuriated the nonprogrammers? Was the Linux community going to be able to produce something that a nonprogrammer could even understand?

Others wondered if the Linux world could ever agree enough to create a software package with some coherence. Today, Microsoft users and programmers pull their hair out trying to keep Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows NT straight. Little idiosyncrasies cause games to crash and programs to fail. Microsoft has hundreds of quality assurance engineers and thousands of support personnel. Still, the little details drive everyone crazy.

New versions of Linux appear as often as daily. People often create their own versions to solve particular problems. Many of these changes won't affect anyone, but they can add up. Is there enough consistency to make the tools easy enough to use?

Many wondered if Linux was right for world domination. Programmers might love playing with source code, but the rest of the world just wants something that delivers the e-mail on time. More important, the latter are willing to pay for this efficiency.

Such questions have been bothering the open source community for years and still have no easy answers today. Programmers need food, and food requires money. Making easy-to-use software requires discipline, and discipline doesn't always agree with total freedom.

When the first wave of hype about free software swept across the zeitgeist, no one wanted to concentrate on these difficult questions. The high quality of free operating systems and their use at high-profile sites like Yahoo! was good news for the world. The success of unconditional cooperation was intoxicating. If free software could do so much with so little, it could overcome the difficult questions. Besides, it didn't have to be perfect. It just needed to be better than Microsoft.