[sixties-l] Linux: The Spirit of Woodstock Struggles On

From: radtimes (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri Aug 31 2001 - 16:05:51 EDT

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    The spirit of Woodstock struggles on

    BY Louise Kehoe
    Financial Times
    August 30, 2001


    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
    the desktop.

    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
    stands for.

    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.
    Third-party software
    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
    services companies.

    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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