November 22, 2004

The Philosophy of the Free & Open

And how it impacts us.

Open Source, is not about Linux. It is not about Apache [1], mySQL [2] or GNOME [3]. In fact, it is not about software at all. Rather it is a philosophy and a belief. A belief that is not only old, but is rather clichéd and goes – “The pen is mightier than the sword”.

The Internet has breathed a new life into this saying, granting it an awesome power. Power enough, that a few individuals, scattered across vast distances, armed with nothing but knowledge, are now planning world-domination.

This article is an idle walk down the annals of history and the corridors of philosophy [4], to play with the questions “who” and “why”. Who are these people, and why-o-why are they doing what they are doing.

Free as in Freedom

The words “free software” or “open source” typically evoke responses saying, “It is available without charge”. While true, it is a quirk with the English language [5] that prevents us from seeing the other, truer meaning. English uses the same word “free” to denote both “without a price to pay” and “freedom to do what you wish to do”. It is the second meaning that truly symbolizes all that this movement stands for. The interpretation of this freedom makes one appreciate that this philosophy is not restricted to software at all. It in fact extends a lot wider.

Imagine a bunch of kids given a huge white canvas, spotlessly clean, and spray cans of red paint. More often than not, the kids will spray away, randomly on the canvas. What if, instead, the kids sat down and started to painstakingly detail the verses of the Iliad or the Ramayana. This is seemingly inconceivable, because of the apparent human nature of preferring the playful to the ordered, which is amplified to an extreme in a group. Directing a random group without either a stick or a carrot seems impossible.

However this impossibility is precisely what is manifesting over at Wikipedia [6]. Wikipedia is an “Open Encyclopedia” where anyone can contribute to any article, without even being logged in. Furthermore, any change perpetrated is visible instantly on the web, without being checked, corrected or in any other fashion moderated by anyone. Given this absolute freedom you would assume chaos – errors in content, clumsiness, information biases, ineptitude or plain vanilla vandalism. However the Wikipedia is one of the web’s most searched encyclopedias, channeling the expertise of thousands to millions more.

Slashdot [7] is another example of this channeled freedom. Despite its obvious biases and pedigree, it remains by far the best example of a publicly moderated discussion board.

The philosophy that drives a hacker of Linux is the same that drives a contributor in Wikipedia. Freedom is not always a bad thing. It does not always result in chaos but begets responsibility and motivates productivity. This freedom is a core tenet of the philosophy of the Open Source movement. I could go on with other examples of the newsgroups [8] or the open courseware [9], but that would be unnecessary. Instead lets spend time tracing the roots of the free and open source philosophy.

In the beginning was the command line

With apologies to Neil Stephenson [10], we are talking about a time that was not too long ago. About three decades ago, the computer meant the PDP-10 [11] or a teletype-fed mainframe. Programming was about thinking in bits and bytes, while programs were meant to be shared, understood, debated upon and improved. Out of thin air and using 0s and 1s, a new science was being invented. C and C++ [12] were being developed, Unix was being coded [13] and software and hardware standards were being set.

The times were reminiscent of the Wild West; with its own tight knit groups, raw excitement and brave gun-wielding heroes. The difference was that the program now replaced the gun and the mainframe was the battlefield. It was this arena that the corporation was presently entering. With a promise to take computing to the masses companies were doing something that was unacceptable to the pioneers – “selling” software.

Richard Stallman [14] was an early pioneer. He believed that software was a universal tool and the source was its soul. Closing source or selling software was something that was utterly unacceptable to him. And he was prepared to do something about it. In 1984, the same year Apple Computer released the Macintosh, Stallman set up the GNU foundation [15].

GNU stands for GNU’s Not Unix, whose vision, satirically, was to provide a full, free version of UNIX. In 1984, UNIX was the predominant OS and was available in a mind-boggling variety of commercial flavors each fragmented from and incompatible with another. The Personal Computer as a product was almost non-existent then and as a concept was still a joke. GNU therefore sought to “liberate” the entire computing world by providing the fundamental tool – the Unix OS – for free.

UNIX-like operating systems are built of two basic parts – the kernel and the utilities. The kernel is the core, which handles the very low level interactions with the hardware, memory and the processor. It only provides a very basic functionality that is converted into something useful by the utilities. UNIX, by its rich heritage has a multitude of tools for every activity from network management to text processing.

While some members of the GNU started recreating the rich toolset, others started work on the kernel, called the HURD [16]. In time the tools started rolling out, each free, available with the source, providing functionality similar to or better than those provided by the various commercial Unices. The development of the kernel was however heading nowhere. The late 1980’s saw the advent [17] of the true Personal Computer – cheap Intel hardware running DOS or the early Windows.

Without the kernel, and a rapidly dying breed of mainframes unable to survive the onslaught of the PC, the GNU movement suddenly faced irrelevance.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Helsinki, decided that his personal operating system, Minix, a Unix-look-alike was not good enough. He was pretty sure he could write something better and attempted to code his own. But in doing this he turned to the Internet for help and guidance [18]. He also put the source code of his attempts back on the net for comments and correction. And from this sprang the kernel, which we now know as Linux. Linux as a kernel could run on the same contemporary hardware used by DOS and Windows. Further, being based on the same standard as that of the older UNIX, Linux could run programs written for the older UNIX kernels.

For GNU, this meant that their long wait for a free kernel was finally over. For Linux this meant that it finally had programs that could actually utilize the kernel that was being built. GNU/Linux became the complete ‘free’ operating system that Richard Stallman and a number of others had been dreaming of.

On the shoulders of Giants

It is people who ultimately define the success of any idea. So it is with the idea of the “open”. Among the multitude of programmers, users, fans and followers of the free and open source movements, there are some who have helped define the soul of the FOSS movement. There are some like Richard Stallman, who are fanatically devoted to the idea of free software, while others like Linus Torvalds, have been the silent, media-shy icons of the movement. There however are others who have helped give a more balanced view of the philosophy of FOSS.

Eric S. Raymond is a Linux evangelist and the author of three extremely powerful essays [19] on the philosophy of Free and Open Source. Called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, “Homesteading the Noosphere” and “The Magic Cauldron”, these essays present a very logical account of the FOSS philosophy. These essays discuss the social, economic and personal drives, reasons and justifications for the success of the open approach. Bruce Perens is another Linux advocate whose article “The Open Source Definition” [20] is a fundamental account of the principle of the FOSS camp. These essays explore the novel effect of having a loosely bound; part time volunteers drive projects of unimaginable magnitude and give it all away for free.

One notable side effect of the having such a diverse and widespread fan base is that villains are instantly vilified and secrets don’t remain secret for long. Take the example of the famous “Halloween Documents” [21].

Microsoft, during Halloween 1998, commissioned an internal strategy memorandum on its responses to the Linux/Open Source Phenomenon. Unfortunately, it leaked, and within days was all over the Internet being taken apart by numerous FOSS advocates. Microsoft was always acknowledged to be the directly affected party because of the FOSS, but it was till then more of a cold war. The Halloween documents changed all that. Open Source advocates openly condemned Microsoft. Microsoft slowly started realizing that FOSS was rapidly changing from being a fringe movement to something that directly threatened it. It responded by sowing, what is now known as, FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) in the minds of its customers. For the first time Microsoft directly acknowledged [22] that Linux had the capacity to unseat it, and started attacking the fundamental value propositions [23] of Linux and the FOSS.

It is also about this time that the mainstream press started increasing its coverage of the FOSS. The coverage was initially about Linux, the free replacement of Unix. Then it was about the sustainability of the Open Source as a Business model. And lately it is about David Vs Goliath – FOSS Vs Microsoft.

The press is an expression of popular opinion. Complementally the press forms popular opinion. And the popular opinion, therefore, weighs heavily on portraying FOSS as the David in the David Vs Goliath story.

This is where we come in

As long as we restrict our view of the FOSS movement to the software it generates, this popular opinion would seem perfectly reasonable. However if we realize that the philosophy of FOSS extends beyond the mere products of the FOSS movement, we begin to realize the nature of our relationship with it. Without too great a risk of generalization, the true nature of the spirit and philosophy of the FOSS is nothing short of the Internet itself.

The philosophy if FOSS is about freedom, freedom defined as “libre” – lack of constraints. It is a spirit of sharing and collaboration. It is a spirit that places quality above other considerations. It is a spirits that drives and is driven by a free flow of ideas. It is a philosophy that considers information supreme.

Every time we search the Internet for tips we are appealing to the philosophy of Open Source. Every code snippet, article, comparative analysis, forum on the Internet is driven by this philosophy. Every self-taught computer user is a product of the philosophy of the Open Source.

To consider this movement and the change it entails as anything less than mammoth would be childish. It involves a fundamental shift in our perception of the business of Information Technology itself. However, the change is upon us. It is now up to us to either respond proactively or to passively let events take the lead in changing us.



Document Changes
November, 22, 2004: First published version.

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