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Epth is a state of mind, not a place. Reading this will give you a virtual drivers license in that state, but you'll still need to be 21 to purchase alcohol. And you can't get any there anyway, so stop asking.

Friday, April 21, 2006

86 Minutes of Nothing But Linux


(One day, Richard Stallman himself will be Open Source Software)

Last night I finished RevolutionOS, which will heretofore be referred to as "that Linux movie," since it's a fair bet that this is the only movie about Linux that will be made in my lifetime. I know what you're thinking, and you're right: A movie about an operating system is bound to be boring and filled with ugly dudes talking about super-nerdy stuff and "educational" in the institutional movie sense of the term, i.e., "as opposed to entertaining." RevolutionOS is all those things, but at least it brings all the major players (on the pro-linux side) together to explain what Linux is and why its important. For that reason, it's worth checking out if you like computers and can put yourself in the mindset of a computer nerd 5-6 years ago, when the movie was filmed.

Since then, Microsoft has kinda gotten its act together in all sorts of important ways, which undercuts the movie a little in retrospect. First of all, they've been wrangling with the Justice Dept.'s antitrust lawsuit, which caused them directly and indirectly to adopt some changes that the hard-core computing community has been clamoring for ("shared source," more frequent and transparent security updates, unbundling Windows in Europe, etc.). Not that they're not still a perfect expression of evil, but at least now they've "seen the light" in a few important ways. Next, Windows 2000 and 2003 Server and XP are such huge improvements over Windows NT/98/ME, it's completely changed the OS and server software landscape. In 1995, people needed Apache Web Server on Linux because it was the best thing out there, and really the only thing if you wanted to run a real web server and host thousands of web pages. In 2006, there are lots of alternatives, and some of those are closed-source.

I suppose I should define some terms for you, since I'm tired of skating around them. The main subject of the movie is a model of software development called "Open Source." Bored yet? You will be when I tell you that Open Source is a very specific philosophy that involves offering your software to the public for free and letting them (meaning high-tech nerdy software engineers) work with the code to improve it. Then they post the improvements for the good of the group, and somebody takes that and improves upon it, and this happens hundreds of times until a stable product is produced. Does that sound like a suitable subject for a movie? Only if it's a one-sided pseudo-educational pro-Open Source manifesto, which of course RevolutionOS is.

(Aside: As a rhetorical appeal, I assure you that even though the subject may be dry and "educational," Open Source is worth exploring for many reasons. I will now get to those reasons. In other words, yes, there is a point to all this.)

The origins of Open Source trace back to the personal computer "hobbyists" of the mid-to-late 1970's, most of whom were at places like MIT and virtually all of whom were nerd-tacular code jockeys who built and ran junky computers in their spare time because they thought programming was cool. These nerds took programs from companies like Microsoft, broke them down, traded them amongst themselves, improved them, and became the first real PC users. This was all well and good, but Bill Gates (yes, he was around back then -- and evil) didn't like the nerds' model of computer use. In the film's best bit, the narrator (the great Susan Egan) reads aloud an angry letter sent by Gates to the hobbyists themselves, her voice getting more shrill and outraged with each passing sentence. The letter was from 1976, and Gates basically called them criminals (for trading his software) and told them the only way the computing industry was going to be viable was if software companies could make money and protect their intellectual property. The astute reader will note that this very same debate still rages on 40 years later, and has spilled over into all sorts of other "intellectual property" like music and movies and books and fan-fiction and parody. It's Open Source vs. Closed Source, and we all will have to choose a side sooner or later whether we realize it or not.

More background, because it's fun: The Founding Father of Open Source, bearded MIT prof. Richard Stallman, was one of those 70's hobbyists. In the mid-80's, he started a group of code writers who for purely philosophical reasons didn't want to write proprietary software for companies (like Microsoft) which he said were "trying to divide and conquer" users. Writing code for these businesses was a "moral dilemma" for Stallman, who thought that all software should be free and open for modification and trade. He doesn't really do a great job explaining why he thinks software should be free -- he appeals to the whole "in Kindergarten, we were taught to share" argument, and repeatedly talks about "the kind of society in which we want to live." At first it looks like a blatantly liberal and emotional argument that doesn't carry much rhetorical weight, but the more one thinks about it, the more one realizes its brilliance (especially when compared to the expensive wasteland that much of 21st century computer software has become).

The brilliance of Open Source comes into play when you realize that code wizards like Stallman don't need Microsoft. The only reason he would be buying a copy of MS-DOS in 1985 was if he was too lazy to write an OS himself. This allows him and his buddies a position of power to realize their idealistic "free software" philosophy. They can just write their own software and distribute it for free! The only obstacle they have is lack of time and money, which is solved by the Open Source system. They can all work on the software at the same time, like a development team! Not only that, they don't have a business and stockholders breathing down their necks to be profitable or "on schedule", so they're free to put whatever code they want into the software to see if it works. In short, Open Source actually gives them freedom, just like Stallman said. But that's not even the really brilliant part. You see, after these brainy people come up with a product that works, they can distribute it for free to an ever-expanding group of users outside their group, many of whom will also comment on it and help its development. Since the Open Source people aren't out to make money off the software, they are free to give it away in hopes of making it, and therefore their own computing lives, better.

None of this would be possible without the internet, of course. It's incredibly fast proliferation from 1988-1998 into virtually every USA building provided a limitless means of mass-distributing Open Source programs (remember the ancient days of trading floppy disks?); It required software to run humongous-scale web servers, which gave Open Source's crown prince programs (Linux and Apache Web Server) an actual real-world function; Virtually overnight it killed and buried proprietary networking software (such as Novell and Microsoft's Gay Naming System(GNS)) in favor of the universal, insanely scalable, and free TCP/IP; It provided countless arenas in the computing world where suddenly Open Source programs could compete with Microsoft, at least until they became an illegal monopoly that the US Justice System still can't seem to take down (see Netscape).

Part of RevolutionOS, the part that's not an infomercial for free software, details the different factions in the Open Source movement and their slightly different ideologies. For example, Stallman believes that all software should be free (he was taught to share, remember?) and that Linux should be called GNU/Linux*. Linus Torvalds, the author of the original Linux code, believes that Linux and other Open Source programs can generate money through things like paid support or charging for improvements, and thinks that calling Linux "GNU/Linux" is absurd. Most of the big figures in Open Source were interviewed for the film, and they all seem to view Stallman as an unrealistic and overly idealistic dinosaur. And it's not like they're all out to make money, either. It's still Open Source, it's just not Free Software Period Under Any Circumstances. They let Stallman speak at their Linux meetings because he's the Founding Father, but they already know what he's going to say, and by the time he reaches the podium they've already begun rolling their eyes.

Even though RevolutionOS is ostensibly about Linux, the real threat to Microsoft is posed by Open Source itself. Not that Microsoft's going to be toppled anytime soon, but Open Source gives the company a competitor it can't crush with its illegal monopoly. As long as Open Source remains free, it will be a thorn in Bill Gates' boney capitalistic side. And that, as that bearded nut Richie Stallman would eagerly point out, benefits us all.

Links: Sourceforge.net -- repository of Open Source software for download.
Mozilla.org -- home of Mozilla, the Open Source arm of Netscape.
Opensource.org -- Learn more about Open Source in dry legalese.

*really nerdy note, if you're interested: GNU stands for "GNU's not UNIX," which is a "recursive acronym" that only a person who spends most of his free time in an MIT lab would find amusing. It's a set of programs that Stallman's Open Source MIT group developed in an attempt to build a UNIX-like OS from scratch. By '90 or so, all they needed was a "kernel" to manage system resources and communication between programs (in other words, the most essential part). To make a long story short, the nordic Linus Torvalds coded the kernel they needed before Stallman could, because Stallman was going about it all wrong. This kernel came to be called "Linux" after its creator, and this eventually stuck as the name for the entirety of the Open Source OS project itself, including the GNU programs. You can tell this still kinda burns Stallman, who spent 6 years working on the project only to have it unintentionally(?) hijacked by one brilliant guy. When Stallman speaks at Linux conferences, he still mentions that it should be called GNU/Linux, which really seems like a bizarre case of sour grapes, especially considering the "sharing is caring" nature of Open Source.

5 Comments:

  • At 2:47 PM, Blogger Flybeard the Sailor said…

    It sounds like the only thing this movie needed to be a blockbuster was a lezzie scene.

     
  • At 4:16 PM, Blogger Mike Pape said…

    Well, that's just not possible, because there were exactly 0 girls in the movie, unless you count the unseen narrator.

     
  • At 7:31 AM, Blogger jill said…

    I would comment but I'm fast asleep.

     
  • At 1:11 PM, Blogger bdean said…

    Sorry, but all the tech talk is a bit over my head. Lezzie? Is that some sort of open source?

     
  • At 10:02 PM, Blogger Mike Pape said…

    Yes. Now let's never speak of it again.

     

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