Cooking with Linux: Virtual Dramamine

In this editorial, Matt takes a look at what might happen when large companies get involved in the Linux community.

I'm sure that I am not the only Linux enthusiast who is kept awake at night by the following terrible vision: One day, while flipping through one of my favorite computer rags, I come upon a full-color two-page advertisement. The large caption reads, “New Technology for a New Generation”, and above it is a glossy photo of Bill Gates, proudly holding forth a box emblazened with the logo: “Microsoft Linux NT”. It gives me chills just thinking about it. Excuse me while I get another cup of coffee and a dramamine.

Are you plagued by nightmares of the commercialization of Linux? Frightened, as so many are, that multibillion-dollar corporations are going to snatch Linux away from the hands of the grunt hackers, who shed so much blood, sweat, and nutritional health to develop this system from the ground up? Does every line of code that you write, every command to you type, resound with one single purpose—“Keep Linux Safe and Legal”?

If so, there's help for you. Here at the Linux Journal Paranoia Support Center we specialize in calming jittery nerves and putting those fears to rest. To prove to you that our service works, this article contains the complete text for your first counseling session—free of charge. If, after reading this article, the image of a gold-toothed Bill Gates still lurks in the corners of your most frightening dreams, call us. We're here to help.

First, the problem: As everyone is well aware, the GNU General Public License has provisions which allow vendors to sell free software, even for profit. In fact, a number of companies are currently doing so: Yggdrasil, Trans-AmeriTech, and Softlanding—just to name a few—sell Linux on various media formats, generally via mail order. And, I think we would all agree, this is a Good Thing. It allows those not fortunate enough to have Internet access to still get their hands on the Linux software, at a modest fee. In fact, the prices charged for Linux CD-ROMs are becoming increasingly competitive—ranging anywhere from $199 to under $30.

Some of these CD-ROMs are simply mirrors of Linux FTP archive sites, where your mileage may vary and some complete distributions, maintained and supported by the distributor, including consulting. The Yggdrasil Fall 1993 CD-ROM manual even claims that for a flat fee of $500, they will fix the problem of your choice and send you a shiny gold CD with the problem fixed. Wonderful! You know, I've been having problems running Microsoft Windows applications under Linux—I wonder if they can do anything about that.

You may be aware that Linus didn't originally intend to license Linux under the GPL. At first, he wanted to impose the additional restriction that nobody could sell Linux for profit—a reasonable expectation, back when the only working device drivers were the console and the serial electric cheese grater. Who'd want to make money off of Linux, anyway? All it could do then was run gcc and make nachos (but, at the same time!).

Eventually, however, Linus gave into political extremism and decided to make Linux a textbook case with which to test the validity and extent of the GPL. As far as I know, Linux is the only (non-mythical) operating system licensed under the GPL, and most of the software used by Linux is covered by the GPL as well. A tasty morsel has been thrown into the sharkpool of the free software world, and it remains to be seen how well the GPL will protect the system from legal turmoil.

Thus far, the fish to bite the Linux bait have been somewhat small-mostly startup companies that are able to market the software on a small scale. Without large-scale marketing, Linux is still controlled and developed by the volunteers who brought it this far. We are still free to implement new features—or break old ones—on a whim, without pressure from any ferocious marketing megalomaniacs.

However, larger companies have started to turn a hungry eye towards Linux. Here, before them, is a complete 32-bit UNIX implementation for the PC—and it's free! The word “free” causes the heads of marketing vice-presidents everywhere to ring with alarms and buzzers. In some of them, it initiates a salivation response not unlike that in Pavlov's dogs.

You see, large companies like Microsoft and Novell have the resources and programmer-power to take Linux, squandering on the Net amongst a group of loosely-knit volunteers, and turn it into something robust, marketable, and probably a bit frightening. A recent issue of PC Week contained an announcement that Novell has plans to base a new graphical environment on Linux. With news such as this, less than a few months after the release of kernel version 1.0, others are sure to follow. Hence, the vivid nightmares of Microsoft Linux NT.

The GPL allows anyone to take Linux, modify it, and market it in whatever way that they please—as long as the modifications are also covered by the GPL. This means that Novell's modifications to Linux must be made freely distributable—perhaps by being available via anonymous FTP. There is an exception to this: If Novell's system were not to involve any changes to the Linux kernel itself, but acted as a completely separate entity (for example, a graphical system running on top of the Linux kernel), Novell would not be required to license their system under the GPL. Of course, the Linux kernel, and any modifications to it, will always be free under the GPL. But independent software which runs with Linux as a base may not be.

Like me, your head is probably buzzing with legalese.

If you're confused, grab a copy of the GNU GPL from prep.ai.mit.edu, in the file pub/gnu/COPYING. Or, if you

have a Linux system, chances are the GPL can be found in the directory /usr/src/linux, along with the kernel sources. The idea is that nobody can take Linux and do anything to it that's not freely distributable.

What does this all mean? It means that a large company, such as Microsoft, could take Linux and market it. In some sense, that's good. Never mind that hard-working volunteers like Linus may never see a penny of Microsoft's funny money—most of the Linux developers don't expect to make anything from the commercialization of their software, and that's fine.

If Linus truly felt that he was getting ripped off, he would distribute Linux under a different license. Making money isn't the important thing—hacking the system is.

This brings us to the other edge of the sword—and what a sharp one it is. In addition to marketing Linux, a large corporation could throw a team of experienced programmers at it, and pay them to develop Linux full-time. This well-paid commercial cadre, given nothing better to do, could possibly implement features in the Linux system that the disorganized network of volunteers would agonize over for months. Don't underestimate the power of cooperation. Given enough cash and a cluster of offices not ten feet away from each other—as opposed to thousands of miles, which is the current maxim—a team of programmers putting their heads together could accomplish things that those of us who only hack Linux during our spare cycles could never do in any reasonable amount of time. Of course, these modifications would be available freely, and could perhaps be incorporated into the standard kernel for all to use.

While some would welcome the commercial development of Linux, I think that it could take away the single most important aspect of the system: That it was developed by volunteers and hackers. Yes, some of those hackers are professionals in the computing industry, yet they act as hackers—not as representatives of a corporation with a vested interest in seeing Linux develop. Not in order to promote their own financial gain, but in order to promote the cause of Linux itself.

If nothing else, Linux should strive to retain its heritage, inasmuch as it has one, as a system developed by and for hackers, and volunteers in particular. (I'd just like to see how far we can get without the help of Big Business.) It's clear, however, that there's no stopping the eventual commercial development of Linux. So, what can we do? The best course of action would be to establish a healthy, working relationship between the current hacker community and the commercial development community. Because all code will be covered by the GPL, the hackers and professionals can share the fruits of each other's efforts as much as they like. The commercial expansion of Linux isn't something to fear, except for purists who may not wish to use any professionally-developed code.

Whatever happens, Linux can still remain a hackers' operating system. The do-it-yourself attitude can survive, even if commercial development plows forward. If the point behind Linux was just to produce a complete, working UNIX system, nobody would bother—there's already NetBSD. Instead, the thrust is to do it by hand, to implement a UNIX system more or less from scratch. As long as there is Linux, there will be hackers.

Ostensibly I have no problem with Linux being marketed well. Although it does put some degree of pressure on the developers. It can't do any harm, and as we have seen, commercialization is good for Linux. One thing to watch out for with respect to marketing is who claims ownership for the Linux software. It wouldn't be right for any company to make Linux appear to be their own product. Although the proper copyright notices may be buried within the kernel source, the major Linux developers deserve credit for their work, at the least.

What have we learned? Well, first of all, that there's no reason to fear the floating head of Bill. A commercialized product based on Linux would have to be freely distributable, and we can all benefit from that. However, it's very important that Linux itself remains a hackers' operating system. No problem. Even if Microsoft develops and markets Linux NT for us, I imagine that folks like Linus and Ted will still spend night after night, staring at the console, wondering why the hell the serial cheese grater device stopped working.

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