Titles | Authors | Subjects

Glyn Moody


Linux and the Open Source Revolution

It may seem surprising, in this commercial age, that talented programmers should make their work freely available for anyone to use or modify, yet this is just what a loose alliance of hackers has been doing for a number of years. The most prominent result of this informal cooperative venture has been the free operating system known as GNU/Linux, which has now become sufficiently widespread to constitute a challenge to the dominance of Microsoft. This book is a history of the open source movement.

As the name GNU/Linux implies, there were two essential components to the movement. In 1991 Linus Torvalds, then a student, began the development of Linux. This was initially no more than a hobby for Linus but as more and more people became involved in the project it expanded into a worldwide cooperative effort until it became a mature and sophisticated operating system. However, Linux is strictly speaking just the kernel; to become useful to computer users at large, much more was needed, and this is where GNU entered the picture. It was the creation of Richard Stallman, a semi-reclusive individual whose dedication to the ideal of free software is almost religious in quality. The GNU project began formally in 1984 and was to provide a number of the essential programs needed to complement Linux.

Moody has written a readable and very interesting account of how the open source movement has developed up to the present from its rather improbable beginnings. His account is fleshed out with pen portraits of the principal participants, which helps to bring the story to life. The sheer number of acronyms does become somewhat overwhelming after a time; fortunately there is a good index, but it would have been useful if a glossary of acronyms had been included for quick reference.

One thing that emerges clearly from this book is the ethical aspect of the free software enterprise; it is concerned with that old-fashioned concept, the public good. Idealism has been a major motivation for most of those who have taken part in it. For Stallman in particular, free software is simply one aspect of a wider goal: the establishment of a free society. At the same time, a number of large companies, including IBM, Netscape, and Hewlett Packard have come to see that free software and business are not necessarily mutually incompatible and are incorporating GNU/Linux into their setups in various ways. These developments have altered both GNU/Linux and commerce in various ways, mostly for the better. Linus himself has taken a job with a commercial company, though without ceasing to head the Linux kernel enterprise. The most prominent company marketing GNU/Linux, Red Hat, has been criticized by some who have called it the Linux Microsoft, but Moody regards this as unfair. However, the most rigorously 'free' distribution remains Debian (my own favourite).

Moody is cautiously optimistic about the future of the free software movement. GNU/Linux is making remarkable headway in countries outside the USA and Europe, notably in China, India, and Mexico. It is also finding applications outside the desktop. There are, of course, dangers to be faced. Microsoft is naturally fighting back (and fighting dirty), and is attempting to take over the Web in the same way that it has taken over the desktop. There is a potential threat here to freedom of choice for the individual, as an article by Lee Dembart in the International Herald Tribune points out (16 July 2001). Legislation is one defence against this, and is the solution advocated by Dembart; free software is another.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about GNU/Linux is that it demonstrates how a quite informal network of independent individuals can cooperate effectively to produce a complex enterprise that works effectively and is better than the competition. Much of the success is undoubtedly due to Linus himself, who possesses exactly the right kind of leadership qualities for an undertaking of this kind. It may well be that the free software movement will serve as a model for how business will develop in the twenty-first century. Let's hope so.

"In the end, GNU/Linux and the open source projects are not about software code only. As this book has described they are also about freedom, sharing and community; they are about creation, beauty, and what hackers calle "fun"—though joy would be nearer the mark. They are about the code within that is at the root of all that is best in us, that rebels against the worst, and that will exist as long as humanity endures."

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2001).

%T Rebel Code
%S Linux and the Open Source Revolution
%A Moody, Glyn
%I Allen Lane: The Penguin Press
%C London
%D 2001
%G ISBN 0-713-99520-3
%P viii + 334pp
%K history, computing
%O paperback
Titles | Authors | Subjects