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A U G U S T   1 9 9 9

Computers Living With Linux Illustration by Terry Allen

A new cost-free and crash-free alternative to Windows and Macintosh operating systems provides freedom at a price

by Charles C. Mann

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

A FEW years ago I worked on a small publishing project in northern California. As often happens now, the project was entirely edited and laid out on a computer network -- four Apple Macintoshes in this case. Because the project had many pictures, which computers treat as very large files, we added a powerful new-model Mac to the network and a fancy laser printer that could produce photo-quality images. To our dismay, the improvements broke the system horribly. We tried to fix it by every method we could think of: fiddling with configuration screens, deleting and reinstalling software, combing through the Internet for advice, calling technical-support numbers, cursing at the machines while turning them on and off repeatedly. A hired computer consultant swaggered into our offices. Hours later he staggered out in defeat. Although we were not far from Silicon Valley, we couldn't find anyone who could fix our boxes.
Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on technology & digital culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?", by Charles C. Mann (September, 1998)
The term "intellectual property" covers everything that's patented, published, and pirated in the world today. The whole system of ownership may now be up for grabs.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Roundtable: "Life, Liberty, and ... the Pursuit of Copyright?" (September, 1998)
Atlantic Unbound welcomes Charles C. Mann, John Perry Barlow, Lawrence Lessig, and Mark Stefik for an interactive Roundtable on the ownership of culture in the information age.

Web Citation: "Liberty and Linux for All," by Ralph Lombreglia (October 21, 1998)
Microsoft's worst nightmare may not be a courtroom in Washington, D.C.

Digital Culture: "The MP3 Revolution," by Charles C. Mann (April 8, 1999)
The recording industry may indeed have something to worry about. If the much-talked-about digital format (or something like it) catches on, we could be carried back into our musical and cultural past.

Related links:

Slashdot
"News for nerds. Stuff that matters." A clearinghouse for news, commentary, and links related to Linux.

Linux Online
"The linux.org domain was registered in May, 1994 by Michael McLagan to fill a gap in the growing Linux movement. Designed to act as a central clearing house for information and promotion of Linux, we endeavour to represent the hard work of everyone involved with this operating system. Operating as a not-for-profit business (not a registered non-profit corp), Linux Online is located in Laurel, Maryland, USA."

By luck we eventually resuscitated our machines. But we still had no idea why they had so many problems, other than our incautious decision to revamp the network on the eve of a major deadline. Recently I have come to believe that the fundamental cause was one that hardly anyone would have named, even those few years ago: our software was proprietary. In other words, the manufacturers -- Apple, in the main, but also Xanté, which made the printer -- controlled the underlying instructions that made their products work, and kept them secret. Much as no technician could repair a computer if the case were sealed shut, neither we nor our consultant could lift the lid of the software and peer inside to see why our network was down.

This is rapidly changing. Pushed by the growth of the Internet and a new operating system known as Linux, many software companies are considering whether to allow unrestricted access to the underlying instructions -- the "source code," in the jargon -- of their programs. For the computer industry this is a turnabout. Until as recently as last year software companies almost invariably viewed source code as their single most valuable asset. Yet throughout Silicon Valley executives are discussing whether they will be forced, for the sake of corporate survival, to give away something they have always thought worth millions of dollars.

The notion is especially startling for operating systems. An operating system is the software that runs the hardware on a computer. When users of, say, Microsoft Word click on the PRINT button or type sentences, the program does not print the document or put letters on the monitor. Instead it passes the instructions to the operating system, which shuttles data from the hard drive to the printer or translates the keystrokes into onscreen characters. The two most familiar operating systems are Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, the Macintosh operating system. Microsoft and Apple are famed for their differences, but in one respect they are exactly the same: they have both used control of the source code to their operating systems as a competitive weapon. Indeed, Microsoft's competitors widely attribute its dominance to its lock on Windows. Nonetheless, Apple has already given programmers a small glimpse of its source code, and Microsoft has announced that it might do the same.

Opening source code is more than the latest news release in the software industry. It is the center of a small but increasingly influential movement -- one that aspires to transform the world. Enthusiasts dismiss the grudging moves by Apple and Microsoft as too little too late, and confidently anticipate that Linux will topple Bill Gates's empire. Many believe that its widespread adoption will greatly increase human freedom. Still others hope that Linux will reduce the gap between rich and poor nations.

No one can say whether any of this will come to pass, although the information age is sweeping society so rapidly and unpredictably that not even the unlikeliest outcomes can be dismissed. But it is clear that living with Linux, which I have been doing for a while now, is not at all like spending time with Windows or Mac OS. Whereas Windows and Mac OS are intended in part to shield users from their machines, Linux forces people to grapple with their relationship to technology -- an experience that was for me both salutary and disquieting.

I'M writing this article with software called XEmacs. The program (its name derives, circuitously, from an abbreviation for "Editor Macros") is unlike any other word processor I've ever encountered. In addition to cutting and pasting text, XEmacs can run other programs; send electronic mail; browse the World Wide Web; retrieve, edit, and send files across the Internet; and keep track of appointments. It's like a digital Swiss army knife. Many hackers (a term used by computer cognoscenti to refer not to teenage vandals but to expert programmers and network administrators) open XEmacs when they come to work, use it through the day for every kind of task, and close it when they go home. Macintosh and Windows adaptations of XEmacs exist, but the program is used mainly on other operating systems, especially Linux. XEmacs is a descendant of Emacs, most of which was written in the mid-1970s by Richard Stallman, a gifted hacker who has spent most of the past two decades working as a volunteer in the halls of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Stallman began coding, proprietary software hardly existed. Computer makers like IBM and Digital threw in the programs needed to operate their expensive machines -- the profits to be made were on hardware. In those long-ago days programmers freely passed their code around for colleagues to use, critique, and improve. Stallman thought of this as eminently sensible.

To many hackers, the rise of the commercial software industry came as an unpleasant surprise. Companies sell software in the form of zeros and ones on computer disks. Like a translated poem that

AUTHOR'S NOTE (Web-only)
Why can't hackers modify proprietary software? After all, people can create altered versions of copyrighted stories simply by typing them. The reason is that software isn't like other copyrighted works. Programmers write it in the form of cryptic instructions that somewhat resemble mathematical equations. This source code is translated by special programs called compilers into "machine language," the sequences of zeroes and ones that computers work with. Although source code is incomprehensible to the hoi polloi, skilled programmers can read it almost as if it were ordinary prose. But even the digital elite cannot read machine language. As a result, anyone who receives programs only in the form of machine language -- the form in which most software is sold -- is for all practical purposes unable to modify them.
cannot be retranslated accurately into its original language, these zeros and ones cannot reliably be translated back into the original source code. Programmers were thus shut out when software firms began treating source code as a trade secret. To Stallman, this was a moral outrage -- corporations were preventing people from learning about and improving their software. He decided to do something about it.

In 1984, Stallman founded the GNU Project, which worked out of donated offices at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Its intent was to create a powerful and sophisticated operating system that was wholly free of proprietary restrictions -- the source code could be copied and changed at will. To ensure that the software could never be kept secret, Stallman invented the GNU General Public License, which copyrighted the source code and released it to the world on the sole condition that any modifications would be covered by the same license -- that is, could be freely copied and changed. This special form of copyright, Stallman said, should be called "copyleft."

GNU intended to duplicate the look and feel of Unix, which was then the most common operating system on big computer networks and the Internet. Invented in 1969 at Bell Labs (the precursor of Lucent Technologies), Unix has mutated into a dozen different proprietary versions, which today are available from IBM, Compaq, Sun Microsystems, and other companies. Stallman called his version GNU, for "GNU's Not Unix," an acronym that includes itself -- the sort of trick hackers love.

The goal was almost ludicrously ambitious. The heart of an operating system is its "kernel," the switchboardlike software that shuttles zeros and ones among the keyboard, the mouse, the monitor, the hard drive, and the microprocessors. But the kernel does not run the computer by itself: it works in concert with hundreds of supplementary programs, including drivers, utilities, programming tools, and window managers. To create a complete operating system the GNU Project would have to write not only the kernel but also the surrounding software -- hundreds of megabytes of code. It was like a group of friends deciding to build their own space shuttle in a basement.

Amazingly, the GNU Project did it -- or, rather, has almost done it. By the early 1990s hackers around the world were using GNU software, including "gawk," a programming language, and "groff," a document-formatting and printing system. But the project had not created a working kernel, partly because Stallman had decided not to pattern the GNU operating system on the Unix kernel but to build upon a stripped-down, ultraflexible kernel developed at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Utah. Unfortunately, producing a kernel that was not only small but also adaptable enough to do many things turned out to be exceedingly difficult. The GNU kernel is still under development; the latest release, version 0.2, appeared in June of 1997.

In 1991 Linus Torvalds decided to write his own kernel. Torvalds, then an undergraduate at the University of Helsinki, had just bought a personal computer: a 386 with four megabytes of memory. Like many hackers, he disliked MS-DOS -- "MS-DOG," as GNU Web pages sometimes call it. But his computer was not powerful enough to run Unix. Scrambling together code from his instructors and merging it with his own work, he fashioned something like a Unix kernel. Because the GNU Project had put together the necessary subsidiary programs, he calibrated his kernel to work with them. The preliminary results appeared on the Internet in the fall of 1991. "Just a hobby," Torvalds explained in an accompanying note. "Won't be big and professional like GNU."

A few hackers downloaded his kernel, fiddled with it, and passed on the improvements, which Torvalds incorporated into the next version, which was downloaded by more hackers, who added still more improvements. The informal online collaboration snowballed Andy Hardy-style, until it included hundreds of computer jocks on five continents, all volunteering their time, all chipping in bug fixes and test results and new chunks of code. Torvalds had backed into creating a full open-source operating system similar to the one that Stallman had envisioned, incorporating all the available GNU software except the kernel. He called the system Freax, but a friend thought the name was silly and to Torvalds's embarrassment rechristened it Linux (Linn-uks, after "Linus"). Version 1.0 was officially released in March of 1994. It was copylefted under the GNU General Public License.

Today Linux has millions of users, the kernel has reached version 2.2, and Torvalds has become the most famous computer programmer on earth. When I went to hear him speak in Anaheim, in 1997, the audience of hackers reacted to his appearance on the dais with mystical fervor: "This is better than the Beatles coming to Shea Stadium," one told me. According to a study issued last March by the International Data Corporation, a market-research firm in Framingham, Massachusetts, that specializes in information technology, the use of Linux will grow by at least 25 percent a year for at least the next five years; Torvalds's not "big and professional" project, the study says, will be breathing down the neck of Microsoft Windows by 2003.

A simple cost comparison suggests the plausibility of this scenario. The basic version of Windows NT, Microsoft's operating system for computer networks, has a list price of $319 per user and requires a Pentium chip. A small start-up company -- not to mention libraries, schools, and other nonprofits -- must pay thousands of dollars to equip its workers. Linux, which is equally powerful, may be downloaded gratis, no matter how many people use it, and can run on older, 486-chip personal computers -- boxes that used-computer stores sell for a hundred dollars.

Linux may have its greatest impact on poor countries, which can use free software on cheap machines to create computer systems just as good as or better than the systems in rich countries. The executive director of Linux International, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting the operating system, is Jon Hall, a manager at Compaq, which has provided Linux on powerful high-end machines since 1995 and which recently announced a new line of Linux-loaded machines for small businesses. In his view, Linux has already broken the rich nations' monopoly on access to computing -- an economic mainstay of the information age.

Because open-source software doesn't have to be registered and can be shot across the Net at will, precise information on its use in poor nations is impossible to obtain. Nonetheless, glimpses of its spread suggest that Hall may be right. Third World hackers have made major contributions to Linux -- the first important computer-industry development in which they have been able to participate. Though Chad, Niger, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea, and the Central African Republic have few Internet hubs, every one of those runs on Linux, according to a survey conducted in April using data from the European Internet Protocol Network (one of the three regional registries of Internet addresses). Last October the Mexican government announced plans to put more than a million Linux computers in its schools. And so on. "The next Albert Einstein of computer science might come from Korea, or China, or Venezuela, or even Helsinki, Finland," Jon Hall has written, "and the world cannot afford to miss the opportunity of finding them."

Continued...

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.


Charles C. Mann (mann@theatlantic.com) is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is @Large (1997), written with David Freedman. Mann's article in this issue is the first in a series of technology pieces that he will write for The
Atlantic
in the coming months.

Illustrations by Terry Allen.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Living With Linux - 99.08; Volume 284, No. 2; page 80-93.