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98.10.15
Everything for Sale

In the world of online auctions, anything (and everything) goes on the block.

98.10.08
The Numbers Game

Baseball's days as our national pastime may be numbered.

98.09.30
Neurodiversity

On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom.

98.09.23
It's the Medium, Stupid

Amidst all the clamor over the Starr Report, one Webzine reminds us what journalism on the Net was supposed to promise.

98.09.16
Psychotherapy on the Net

Boldly going where Freud never went.

98.09.10
Celebrity Trades

With the market in turmoil, the only safe bets may be at the box office.

98.09.02
There's Something About Harry

How a twenty-six-year-old college dropout became the king of "film geeks" -- and the bane of big Hollywood studios.

98.08.20
The Second Coming

Jesus and Elvis meet Dolly.

98.08.12
New Definition

A preview of the Oxford English Dictionary's electronic edition points the way to a new kind of reference work.

98.08.05
The Lolita Effect

What Vladimir Nabokov and Bill Clinton have in common.

98.07.30
Normandy: 1944

As Saving Private Ryan sweeps the country, learn about the reality behind the celluloid images.

98.07.22
Investigating the Renaissance

An interactive exhibit shows how digital imaging can reveal a painting's secrets.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
Liberty and Linux for All
October 21, 1998

OS Wars Last year, as the Netscape Communications Corporation was suffocating under pressure from its giant rival, Microsoft, company executives came upon an essay titled "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" by a hacker named Eric Raymond. Raymond's essay analyzed (and rhapsodized) the surprisingly workable global collaboration that had resulted in the legendary "free" operating system called Linux. Impressed by Raymond's analysis and needing a bold move to counter the Microsoft juggernaut, Netscape made a decision that struck many observers as an inexplicable last-ditch maneuver. The company not only took all price tags off its Web-browsing products but also vowed to make their "source code" freely available.

Since the commercial software industry rests upon the notion of proprietary products created and maintained in strict secrecy, it's easy to see why Netscape's move was perceived as a weirdly pointless tactic, if not outright surrender. Microsoft partisans gloated that their champion now owned the Internet while Netscape owned ... well, nothing.

Netscape's inspiration was not a surreal deathbed vision but the logical extension of the very software-development model that gave rise to the Internet itself -- "open-source" software, formerly known as "free software." Most people don't know it, but there is nothing proprietary about the Internet at all. The basic software beneath all e-mail and Web-browsing was created collaboratively by unpaid hackers around the globe, and is owned by no one. If open-source software disappeared tomorrow, there would be no World Wide Web.

Gates
Bill Gates 
(from U.S. News
Now, less than ten months after Netscape announced its decision, nary a gloat can be heard from Microsoft partisans, not so much because Netscape's fortunes have changed radically (they haven't, yet), but because of the amazing story of Linux, which in the same brief period has gone from geeky obscurity to the very brink of doing the unthinkable: putting an end to the hegemony of Microsoft's own OS, Windows. Linux is widely reported to be both faster and more reliable than Windows or Windows NT, and though it's still a technically demanding OS used primarily by programmers and system administrators, consumer-grade improvements and add-ons (like graphical interfaces) appear on the Internet daily.

Linux, inspired by Bell Labs's famous Unix operating system, was begun by a Finnish programmer named Linus Torvalds as a personal project seven years ago when he was only twenty-one. After basing a shaky first draft of the OS "kernel" on the work of another hacker, he posted the source code on the Net with a request for input from others. He soon had people from around the world volunteering to help. Torvalds claims not to be a brilliant programmer himself, but he did possess a visionary understanding of what we now call "virtual communities." He grasped that the just-mature Internet could be combined with the collaborative "hacker ethic" to produce a massive software-development team that was both everywhere and nowhere. Today, thousands of hackers have worked together on Linux without ever meeting one another, all for no other compensation than the esteem of their colleagues -- which, among hackers, is the most important thing of all.

Torvalds
Linus Torvalds 
Although no one owns open-source software code, professionals can still make money with it. It's perfectly acceptable to work as a Linux consultant, or trainer, or book author, or to set up a company to sell convenient, easy-to-install Linux OS packages on CD-ROM complete with printed manuals and custom applications. Red Hat Software is the best-known company to do that (they've just received investment from both Netscape and Intel), but other Linux packages are sold by Caldera and Cygnus, among others. For that matter, it's no sin to create proprietary applications that run in the Linux environment but that are not themselves open-source. Corel's well-known WordPerfect is already available in a Linux version, and its office suite and graphics programs will be released soon for the Linux OS. Corel has even started a new hardware division to build "Linux Powered Computers." And to shop for all things Linux, there's a Web-based "Linux superstore," the LinuxMall.

Buckminster Fuller once said that all truly important inventions eventually become the property of humanity. Computer science, not politics or economics, has finally brought us to the point where global collaboration for the common good is not only possible but inescapable. On April 1, 1998, Netscape released its browser source code as promised, and within hours -- literally -- bug-fixes and enhancements began pouring in on the Net from around the world. When it decided to "give away its code," the beleaguered Netscape may have appeared, from a commercial perspective, to have given up the ghost. In fact it had enlisted the entire planet Earth to its cause.

--Ralph Lombreglia


Join the discussion in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

Ralph Lombreglia is a regular contributor of short stories and reviews to The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. His essays on digital culture have appeared frequently in Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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