For the love of Hacking
By Josh McHugh
IBM'S INTELLECTUAL property lawyers had never drafted a deal quite like this one. In April software engineer Yen-Ping Shan was describing a partnership IBM was proposing with something called the Apache Group. IBM, all $100 billion worth of it, was courting this loose confederation of 20 programmers. "Loose" is an understatement. The programmers, scattered from Palo Alto to Munich, were not incorporated and had no formal business arrangements.
IBM wanted to use the Apache Group's software as the cornerstone of WebSphere, an Internet commerce package IBM planned to release in June. This was a weird partnership deal because no money was involved.
"Even if you want to pay, there's no one to pay," Shan explained. "They don't exist, legally."
Right. A no-money licensing agreement with an entity that had no legal existence. "So let me get this straight," one IBM lawyer said. "We're doing a deal with . . . a Web site?"
Yes, and the Web site was setting the terms of the deal: It must be non-exclusive. The software's source code—the very intellectual property that IBM's lawyers are normally paid to keep proprietary—was, and would remain, freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Like it or not, those were the terms IBM had to work with. The 20 programmers were reluctant to throw in with IBM. "What can we show you to prove to you we're serious?" Shan asked them at one point.
Finally, the blue-chip giant scraped together a handful of the only currency that interested Apache's developers: a technical advance for the software—in programmer parlance, a hack. IBM programmers had figured out how to make Apache's software run faster on Microsoft's NT operating system. They offered to show their hack to the Apache gang and agreed to share future hacks as well. Done deal. The Apache folk would throw in with IBM in June.
This raises a couple of questions:
1. Why was IBM so eager to get the software?
2. What sort of software was it?
1. It was a technical marvel that commands more than 50% of the booming market for Web server software; at the same time, IBM scored huge coolness points with programmers writing software for the Internet.
2. This is liberated software. Not just (as in many cases) free of charge, but—much more important—free for any programmer to modify, improve and share with other programmers. Its code was out there for anyone and everyone to see— and copy.
Known as "open-source software," "freeware" or "free software," it may not put Bill Gates and Larry Ellison in Chapter 11, but it could limit their future profitability. At the very least, it demonstrates a neat alternative way to produce better software.
Commercial software is typically delivered in binary form—that is, in 1s and 0s that make sense to a microprocessor but are unreadable even by advanced programmers. Usually you have to pay for it; sometimes (with browsers, for example) you get it for free. But either way you just get the 1s and 0s.
The truly liberated stuff comes complete with its source code, the commands written by the author of the program. This gives others an intimate view of what the developer was doing with the code and how. It allows those who read the code to make repairs, to customize the program and to imitate the programming tricks and algorithms when they write unrelated software.
Why would programmers give away source code, a potential gold mine? It's a way to get committed users to chip in their own improvements, creating a communitarian program much better than any one author or firm could produce solo.
But there's an even more important reason for this seeming largesse: Liberated software has become an intellectual Olympics, where some of the world's top engineering minds compete—not for venture capital, but for impressing their peers.
Netscape dipped a toe into the open-source stream when it released the source code for its Internet browser in March. Within hours a team of Australian programmers had attached a cryptographic add-on to enable secure Internet transactions. Other improvements to the original poured in from all around the world over the next two weeks. In less than a month, a new version of the browser was posted on the project's Web site, ready for downloading.
For their efforts, the Australians were paid handsomely—but not with money. The programmers, calling themselves the Mozilla Crypto Group, got paid in respect from the rest of the programming community and in the satisfaction of turning out an elegant and useful bit of software. Plus it was a gas. The worldwide notoriety of their hack won't hurt the fortunes of their Brisbane consulting company, Cryptsoft.
Had Netscape put together a team and thrown money at the project, it is doubtful it could have produced equal results in so little time.
Meet Linus Torvalds. The soft-spoken, sandy-haired Finn was a 21-year-old in his second year at Helsinki University in 1991, tinkering on a PC with an experimental version of the UNIX operating system. He mentioned the program to an Internet newsgroup. A member of the newsgroup offered him space to post his program on a university server. A few people downloaded the program and set to work on it, then sent the changes back to Torvalds. Someone dubbed it Linux ("Linn-uks").
Within a year Torvalds' software had taken on a life of its own. "I had 5 to 10 people using it. Then that number went to between 100 and 200," says Torvalds. "I didn't know the people anymore."
Seven years later an estimated 7 million people around the world are using computers and networks run by Torvalds' creation. It is an astonishingly versatile piece of programming.
Engineers have tweaked Linux to run 3Com's handheld PalmPilot computer. Red Hat Software's version of Linux won the 1996 award for best desktop computer operating system from trade magazine InfoWorld. In April researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory used Linux to run 68 PCs as a single parallel processing machine to simulate atomic shock waves.
The do-it-yourself supercomputer cost only $152,000, including labor (connecting the 68 PCs with cables)—about one-tenth the price of a comparable commercial machine. It reached a peak speed of 19 billion calculations per second, making it the 315th most powerful supercomputer in the world. Three months later it still hasn't had to be rebooted.
Torvalds, at 28, is perhaps the most popular programmer on the planet—and a bona fide celebrity on the Internet. A World Wide Web search engine finds 7,192 matches for Sun Microsystems' chief executive, Scott McNealy, 8,580 for Oracle's Larry Ellison, 16,604 for actor Tom Cruise—and 20,419 for Linus Torvalds. One Web site, "Linus Torvalds Tribute," includes links to other sites titled "Wacky stuff about Linus," "Linus' Usenet postings" and "Linus to Move to U.S. in 1997."
With thousands of programmers working on Linux, the rate of incoming improvements and new features for the program has accelerated. For all their resources, an IBM or a Microsoft couldn't have moved faster. Whereas new versions of typical commercial software products are issued once a year—or once every three years, in the case of Microsoft's Windows operating system—new open-source programs like Linux and Apache are posted monthly, if not more frequently.
As the Internet grows larger and more diverse in its applications, software like Torvalds' that adapts to constant change and doesn't break down will move from being handy to being mandatory.
For all his cyber-celebrity and the success of Linux, Torvalds isn't building a $40 million house or buying a fighter plane. Now living in Santa Clara, Calif. and working for a chip design company, he drives a green Pontiac that's a dead ringer for your standard rental car. His favorite dining spot is a low-priced Thai restaurant.
Torvalds, who lists Albert Einstein and namesake Linus Pauling as his heroes, explains what motivates him: "There's a strong artistic element."
These artists call themselves "hackers," but they're a far cry from the bragging 14-year-olds (also known as "crackers") who grab headlines trying to break into the Pentagon's computers. In this community, "hacker" is a term of respect. In the late 1950s MIT students who loved to tinker with the university's gigantic early computers started calling themselves hackers. Richard M. Stallman claims direct descent from them. He started working at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory as an 18-year-old Harvard student in 1971.
Thinking back on those days, Stallman says: "It was a bit like the Garden of Eden." His eyes, intense and youthful as a college freshman's, shine out from behind a thicket of tousled hair and a bushy black beard. "It hadn't occurred to us not to cooperate," he recalls.
The fall from grace, or what Stallman calls "pollution," began in 1981, when a company called Symbolics hired away most of the AI lab members. They stopped turning out freeware and produced instead trade secrets, hoarded and hidden.
A mile and a half west of Stallman's beloved lab, another Harvard student named Bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen had used Harvard's computers to write an operating system for the Altair 8800 six years earlier. This creaky machine had a row of red lights as a display and 256 bytes of memory, built around the new Intel 8080 processor and assembled by electronics buffs.
Someone snared a copy of Gates' program, made copies and gave it to fellow hobbyists, who made and handed out their own copies. In the prevailing atmosphere this wasn't thought of as stealing—but Gates saw it differently and said so in "An Open Letter to Hobbyists," which ran in several of the computer hobby journals of the day. "Most of you steal your software," Gates wrote. "One thing you do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?"
Gates eventually prevailed in the realm of personal computers. Stallman, however, didn't give up without a battle. He retaliated by sabotaging his former colleagues' sophisticated commercial programs for powerful computers, singlehandedly hacking up his own versions and giving them away. "They accused me of costing them millions of dollars," he says. "I hope it's true."
In 1984 Stallman started work on GNU, his liberated version of the widely used UNIX operating system. Several pieces of GNU software are vital to the operation of Linux. The year after he started GNU Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation to promote free software projects.
Let's face it: Communitarian ideas like Stallman's are unlikely to sweep the capitalist world. Nevertheless, the rise of the Internet could be nudging the software industry at least partly in this direction. In fact, two of the most fundamental pieces of the Internet are open-source software. BIND is the software that allows us to type site names like www.yahoo.com instead of the machine numbers (18.104.22.168) our browsers really need. BIND is freeware developed originally at Berkeley in the early 1980s. Sendmail, which routes about 80% of the E-mail that courses over the Internet, is also open-source software, initially written by Eric Allman in 1981 and now maintained by sendmail.org, an on-line programmer community that numbers in the thousands.
But even idealists have to eat, don't they? Yes, replies Stallman, but they don't have to drive Ferraris. "If you want people to take out the garbage, you have to pay them," says Stallman, who literally lived in his office, sleeping in a bed a few feet from his collection of computers, until MIT made him take a room off campus. "You don't have to do that to get people to program. The excitement of advancing the technology is what drives hackers."
Agreeing, Linus Torvalds points out that programmers are able to make a handsome living in our society without royalties and the receipts from IPOs. "If you're good, it's easy to get paid," he says. "Good programmers are rare enough that people pay them well. A big part of personal satisfaction is having your work recognized by your peers. That's fundamental in any human psyche."
Eric Raymond, editor of The New Hacker's Dictionary (MIT Press, third edition, 1996), is a Linux programmer whose essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" spurred Netscape to liberate its source code. Somewhat romantically, Raymond compares hacker culture to the culture of the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest described by anthropologist Marvin Harris in Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches (Random House, 1974).
In these tribes, the Kwakiutl and others, the central social event was the potlatch, where tribal chiefs would gain status—and recruit new tribe members—by lavishing gifts and feasts on neighboring tribes. The totem poles these tribes are known for served as elaborately crafted advertisements for each tribe's prosperity—and hence the chief's ability to "cause great works to be done."
Before you scoff, remember that for the superrich, who have far more money than they ever could spend, further accumulation is a striving for status rather than a pursuit of additional luxury. Freeware folk are simply people who chose to accumulate prestige rather than money.
Do you want to create a cool Web business? Then you will probably avail yourself of Perl, a language that can be used to scan databases and documents for certain words or numbers, then display the results in tabular form. For this contribution to computing you can thank Larry Wall, a 43-year-old former linguist who created the language while working on a government-sponsored project at Burroughs. Nobody collects a royalty on Perl. Wall isn't starving—500,000 copies of his Perl manuals have sold. But he is unlikely to reach The Forbes Four Hundred. "To have launched something that becomes bigger than yourself . . . it's overwhelming," says Wall.
Erik Troan, Red Hat Software's chief developer, pithily sums it all up: "For engineers, it's all about the cool hack." Troan's well-paid job at the Linux reseller lets him work on his passion all day long.
Although Red Hat is very much a for-profit company, it keeps the faith by making the Linux source code—and any source code its programmers add—available with the software. If some of Red Hat's code is sloppy, the users can make it better—and, ideally, share the fix with the world.
Sendmail creator Eric Allman started Sendmail, Inc. last November. Allman seems to have a more corporate-looking haircut than many of his shaggy programmer peers—until you glimpse the narrow 14-inch braid tucked under the back of his button-down collar. Allman is confident that as long as the code stays open and the information keeps flowing between the company and the community, he and Sendmail, Inc. can avoid the "sellout" tag. He makes a living for his company by selling easy-to-use versions of the program, along with support and service contracts, to corporations who would rather use the phone than hack their own fixes.
The company has closed its second round of venture financing, raising $6 million. It has an asset that cannot be quantified for the balance sheet: free helpers. More than 5,000 people downloaded a prototype of Sendmail to test the software, try to break it, and fiddle with the source code. Not many software companies can mobilize 5,000 testers.
Apache, the group that IBM coveted, is an example of the informality that rules in the freeware world. Brian Behlendorf, 25, helped to start it all. Back in 1991 he was organizing all-night techno dance parties known as "raves." "The first day 50 people signed up. I knew there was something there." At one rave on Bonny Doon beach near Santa Cruz, Calif. 3,000 people showed up. The only promotion was via E-mail and word of mouth.
After finding a job building Wired magazine's Web site through a rave acquaintance, Behlendorf decided the Web server software he was using needed improvement. He made a few of his own, then posted the new version, with source code, on the Internet. Code contributions poured in and thus was born Apache, which today serves up more than 50% of the Internet's Web sites, including those of Internet top dog Yahoo!. Apache knocked Netscape's closed-source Web server out of the running for the cornerstone of IBM's Web commerce package.
Freeware is still on the fringe of the software industry, but it's a pretty substantial fringe. As more businesses of every sort come to depend on the Web, access to source code will become more important. Why? It can mean the world to a programmer or the person running your company's Web site. "Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?" demands Robert Young, Red Hat Software's chief executive.
Intel Corp. is certainly not ignoring the freeware community. On this Bastille Day Intel cosponsored a Linux "tech talk" at the Santa Clara convention center, attended by roughly 1,000 programmers and systems administrators. The hook: Someone had hacked Linux to simultaneously harness four of Intel's Xeon processors, introduced to the world about two weeks earlier.
Intel engineer Sunil Saxena sat elbow-to-elbow on a panel with Linus Torvalds and was hounded by audience members about releasing early specifications on Intel's upcoming chip, Merced, to the Linux community. Torvalds, smiling broadly, came to the frazzled Intel man's aid. "Don't worry," he said, quieting the hooting crowd. "When Merced comes out, we'll get it running in a couple of weeks. It's a done deal."
Intel has good reason to court the freeware crowd: The more popular non-Microsoft operating systems become, the less Microsoft can push Intel around.
In addition to IBM and Netscape, most of the big software companies are taking a keen interest in open-source software. Corel has recoded its applications and office software suite to run on Linux and is selling a computer that uses Linux as its operating system. Computer Associates International has written a version of its database software for Linux, and Oracle Corp. is rejiggering its products to do the same.
No, Bill Gates' fortune is not at risk, but as Microsoft comes to rely increasingly on selling software for corporate networks and the Internet, it will have to reckon with the spreading manifestations of liberated software. In January Microsoft shelled out $400 million for Hotmail, a Web-based free E-mail service, bringing aboard 9.5 million accounts—all running on Apache.
Maybe in the end this even benefits Microsoft. Bill Gates' juggernaut looks a lot less like a real monopoly in a world where plenty of good software is free. Justice Department, please note.