Will Free Software Be the Foundation of the Information Economy?

Date: 11 Aug 1998 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Will Free Software Be the Foundation of the Information Economy?

by David Morris
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

August 11, 1998 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

The vast majority of the 46 million households with computers depend on an operating system–Windows–that is owned by Microsoft. No one is allowed to alter that system, which constitutes the basic environment in which software applications like word processing and spread sheets function. If repairs are needed, or additional features are desired, you must wait for Microsoft’s next version.

We might not like this dependence, but proprietary software is the price we pay to gain the extraordinary improvements in information technology. Right? Not according to Richard Stallman.

Back in the early 1970s, when personal computers were first introduced and programmers willingly shared their innovations, Stallman, Paul Allen, Bill Gates and others belonged to the same computer group in Cambridge.

In the mid ’70’s Gates and Allen developed a new program. When the program was copied and passed around, Gates told his brethren to grow up. Unpaid cooperation could never drive the information economy. “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”, Gates asked in his widely circulated piece, “An Open Letter to Hobbyists”.

Gates’ proprietary spirit came to characterize the computer industry. Gates went on to found and run Microsoft and amass a fortune recently estimated at $40 billion, a sum larger than the GNPs of many countries.

Stallman took another path. He gathered a group of programmers to design free software. They developed well-regarded tools to help programmers–file handlers, compilers, editors. In 1985 Stallman and others created the Free Software Foundation(FSF). Its holy grail was to create a full fledged freely shared operating system.

Enter Linus Torvalds who in 1991 was a 21 year old Finn in his second year at Helsinki University. Torvalds improved FSF’s experimental operating system and upon the advice of friends, put the source code, that is, the internal instructions of the program, up on the internet. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Within a few days 10 people had downloaded the program. Five improved it and sent it back up to the internet. Within a few months more than 100 people worldwide had joined what came to be known as the Linux working group.

Today some 10,000 programmers are continuously improving Linux for no pay. Widely regarded as the best and most reliable operating system in the world, Linux has attracted 7.5 million users. That may seem a drop in the bucket next to Windows 100 million plus. But Linux is already the second most used operating system in the world and is growing faster than any other. And in some markets it already is the standard. For larger office computers called servers Computerworld reports that Linus has a bigger market share than Microsoft’s Windows NT.

What’s going on here? To computer programmer Eric Raymond, author of the influential paper, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, the answer is quite simple. “No commercial developer can match the pool of talent the Linux community can bring to bear on a problem.”

But what about the desire for private gain? Why are programmers willing to freely share their genius? Don’t they need to earn a living? Good programmers can make a good living, Raymond, Stallman and Torvalds observe. By improving Linux they gain something money can’t buy: prestige and recognition from their peers. “The excitement of advancing the technology is what drives hackers”, Stallman insists

For Raymond, free software is inherently more competitive than the closed, centralized and controlled development system embodied by Microsoft, the cathedral in his paper. “(T)he commercial world cannot win the evolutionary arms race with free-software communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem.”

It took Microsoft 3 year to upgrade Windows. Over that same period, Linux has released over 100 improved versions.

For Stallman the issue is less economic than ethical. For him software copyrights constitute “civic pollution”. “(S)haring knowledge of a generally useful kind with your neighbor is the fundamental act of friendship”, he insists, and sharing is the building block of a healthy civil society.

It’s been a long time since people told Stallman to “go back to Russia” for his seemingly communist ideas. This spring Netscape began to distribute the source code of its best selling internet program. In July, Oracle announced a Linux version. The same month Word Perfect said it too would have a Linux version. Cooperation seems to be winning the day.

None of this means Bill Gates will wind up in the poorhouse. Personal gain will always be a useful motivating force in the information economy. But in the future the industry may house fewer billionaires. And what the tale of Linux is proving is that mutual aid and sharing, not cutthroat competition and copyrights, are the best methods for raising productivity and lowering costs.

Avatar photo
Follow David Morris:
David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.