The spirit of Woodstock struggles on
BY Louise Kehoe
August 30, 2001
LINUX WAS NOT CREATED TO MAKE MONEY. BUT 10 YEARS ON, THE OPERATING
SYSTEM'S FATE DEPENDS ON PROFIT-DRIVEN CORPORATIONS
This may be the worst year on record for Silicon Valley's technology
industries but it is a great year for technology anniversaries. Following
the recent 20th anniversary of the introduction of the International
Business Machines personal computer and the Ethernet networking standard,
comes the 10th anniversary of Linux, the open-source computer operating
It was 10 years ago last week that Linus Torvalds, a Finnish computer
science graduate student, invited other programmers to join him in
developing a clone of the Unix operating system to be available free of
charge to all users.
The software development project was "just a hobby", he explained, and
would not become "big and professional".
As thousands of programmers and software marketers gather in San Francisco
this week for the Linux World trade show, it is evident that Mr Torvalds'
"hobby" has belied his prediction. With companies such as IBM and
Hewlett-Packard promoting Linux, the operating system software has become
part of the mainstream computer industry every bit as "big and
professional" as any commercial software product.
Despite this, Linux has retained much of its counter-culture appeal and the
support of many of the volunteer, unpaid, open-source programmers who
created it. As Woodstock was to the late 1960s, so Linux was to the early
1990s. Instead of "breakfast in bed for 400,000", Linux was fuelled by
thousands of pizza deliveries.
Much as the Woodstock Festival drew hundreds of thousands of music fans
together and became a defining event for a generation of Americans, Linux
drew disparate programmers from around the world, excited to become part of
a community via the internet. The merits of the software aside, Linux
stands as a shining example of what can be achieved by online collaboration.
Yet Linux also demonstrates the downside of consensus management. There was
always another tweak, another detail on which not all could agree. Were it
not for Mr Torvalds' rule over the Linux world, the latest version of the
operating system, released in January after numerous delays, might still be
An important element of the Linux spirit was rebellion against "big
business" interests - and in particular Microsoft, as it came to dominate
Although Linux was conceived as an alternative, free version of Unix, it
later became a challenger to Microsoft's Windows. In 1998, Corel, one of
Microsoft's few competitors in the office desktop application market at
that time, announced plans to create Linux versions of its word processing
and spreadsheet programs and later that year Microsoft listed Linux as a
"possible competitive threat" to Windows in a filing with the Securities
and Exchange Commission.
In recognising Linux in this way, Microsoft was perhaps being disingenuous.
It was certainly in the interests of a software market leader beset by
antitrust problems to suggest that it had competitors.
The "Linux threat" to Windows on the desktop has dissipated. While Linux
has become a significant "alternative" operating system for enterprise
servers - taking market share from commercial versions of Unix rather than
Windows - only diehard Microsoft foes now use it on the desktop.
Nonetheless, Microsoft is attacking Linux. Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief
technical officer of advanced strategies and policy, reporting directly to
Bill Gates, has mounted a campaign against open-source software licensing.
He insists that any company - be it a software developer, or a company that
uses software - risks forfeiting its intellectual property rights if it
embellishes Linux or creates new applications for the open-source operating
The legalities aside, Linux is the antithesis of everything that Microsoft
At its formation, 26 years ago, Microsoft was a pioneer of a new generation
of "independent" software developers; a company that aimed to build its
business around creating "packaged" software products independent of the
computer hardware industry. At the time, this was a radical idea.
developers had hitherto created custom-designed programs for their clients
or had been tethered to computer hardware companies.
In contrast, Linux is proving to be a throwback to the days when software
developers were beholden to "big, professional" computer hardware and
Because Linux is free to any user, it is not a viable standalone product.
Instead, Linux software companies have added services and additional
software to generate revenues. But the going has been hard.
Two years ago, the mere mention of Linux would excite investors. Start-up
companies such as Red Hat and VA Linux commanded valuations based upon huge
multiples of forecast revenues, never mind earnings.
VA Linux, one of the few survivors of this era, made its initial public
stock offering at a price of more than $240 a share. These days its shares
are trading for less than $2. Similarly, Red Hat, one of the pioneers in
building a for-profit company around Linux, has seen its stock fall from
more than $149 to less than $4.
Linux was never supposed to be a business, of course, but as Linux
companies falter its future may depend largely upon the continued support
of some of the biggest names in computing. These may be the only companies
that can afford to support a free operating system and they may do so only
to keep the leading
commercial software vendors in check.
It is a far cry from the idealism of Mr Torvalds' 1991 call for collective
Some may say that the ticket touts and the food vendors have taken over but
Linux loyalists are determined that the party will continue. This week they
celebrated the 10th anniversary of the operating system with a "BYOB" -
bring your own beer - barbecue. Not quite Woodstock, perhaps, but the
spirit lives on.
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