The GNU project and the Linux kernel were conceived and birthed outside of the corporate sphere. In the early days congeries of hackers built up the GNU/Linux system, largely ignoring the shenanigans of the business world. Among some hackers it was a point of pride to scorn the corporate drones who programmed at the whim of clueless managers and the vagaries of the stock market. For the first decade and a half the free software movement was redolent of rebellion and non-conformity. People who created and used free software relished the uniqueness of their community and their eccentric personalities. Their insider jokes and even the way they named their software with hilarious acronyms, recursive names and obscure references was a celebration of their independence from the corporate world. They didn’t have to worry about inanities like marketing, public relations and keeping investors happy.
The early days were heady and liberating times, but free software has fundamentally changed in the last decade. It isn’t even called the same thing anymore. Today it has been redubbed as “open source” and transformed into a cornerstone of the modern software industry. Open source is embedded in almost every major tech company in some way or another, whether it runs their servers, compiles their code, or forms the basis of their business plans and marketing strategies.
Since the fall of 1997 when AOL announced the release of Netscape as Mozilla, the free software has never been the same. Slowly but inevitably free software has become dominated by corporate interests and its development dictated by their business plans. The principal hackers have been hired by corporations or they have started businesses themselves. The biggest contributors to the Linux kernel are all being paid for their work—mostly by big corporate names like IBM, Red Hat and Novell. Today free software is conquering the world; it runs the majority of servers and big iron and almost half of new embedded devices. It is even emerging on the desktop with the advent of netbooks and a growing disenchantment with Microsoft’s bloatware.
In some ways the corporatization of free software has been a blessing for the free software movement. The corporations have footed the bill to pay thousands of hackers to work on free software. Today many free software applications are as easy to use and well-designed as their proprietary competitors. Mozilla Firefox outshines its proprietary competitors partly because revenues from Google finance its development. GNOME would not be the same today without Red Hat and Novell paying people to work on it. Likewise KDE development would slow considerably without TrollTech’s support of some of its key developers. Yet, this growing corporatization of free software represents a hazard. What would happen if Google decided to terminate its ad-sharing agreement with the Mozilla Foundation? We as a community would never loose the code for Firefox and its development would surely continue, but without paid programmers, its development would slow to a crawl while volunteers organized to assume responsibility for the tasks now handled by the Foundation’s programmers.
We have the GPL and other licenses to guarantee our access to the code, but that doesn’t guarantee that the software will continue to be developed without corporate funding. Some projects such as AbiWord have proven that development can continue even after corporate abandonment, but nobody today considers AbiWord to be an adequate replacement for MS Word, as it promised to become when AbiSource was developing it back in 1999.
Although the corporatization of free software represents an enormous opportunity for the expansion and development of free software, it also places free software at the vagaries of Wall Street and the business plans of corporations. The tech industry is a volatile place, with giants like Google rising up in a matter of years. Industry giants get swallowed up and disappear regularly. Nobody in the 60s and 70s would have predicted that the mighty IBM would sell a large part of its computer business to a Chinese company or that the rest of the major manufacturers colorfully termed the “seven dwarfs” would have disappeared 4 decades later. Who would have predicted in the 1980s that Digital and Compaq would be bought up by HP which only had a fraction of their computer sales at the time.
Users of GNU/Linux should appreciate the volatility of the tech industry considering how Richard Stallman was laughed at in 1983 when he wrote the GNU manifesto. Nonetheless, that document and the tools and licenses which it spawned have transformed the industry and driven proprietary UNIX out of business. The nature of the tech industry is rapid change and as free software increasingly intertwines itself with big enterprise, it becomes increasingly subject to the fortunes and decisions of corporate entities. Nobody witnessing the recent corporate meltdown in the financial industry over the last couple months should make the mistake of assuming the stability of corporations no matter how stolid they appear.
Of course free software licenses guarantee that the community will always have access to the source code, but a piece of software dies if it doesn’t have active developers and it is placed at the greatest risk if all its developers work for a single corporation. When a single corporation owns the copyright on all the code, the code can be relicensed and transformed into proprietary software at the drop of a hat. Nobody worries that software like the Linux kernel or Apache will ever be abandoned because it is developed by a diverse set programmers who work for many different entities. Most of the software whose inception predates the corporatization of free software in the late 90s continues to be developed by a diverse set which guarantees its continued development. When the copyright is held by many people as is the case of the Linux kernel or by a non-profit trust like the Free Software Foundation, the Apache Group, the Mozilla Foundation or Software in the Public Interest, there is little threat of the code being privatized.
The most venerable parts of the GNU/Linux system are copyrighted in such ways, but since the corporatization of free software in the late 90s, most new software has found its inception as part of a scrappy startup. The community celebrated the success of these startups, but companies like Ximian, SuSE, GlueCode, SleepyCat, XenSource, Zimbra, TrollTech, MySQL and Innotech did not stay small and independent for long. They have been snapped up and transformed into cogs in larger corporations which pursue a mixed strategy of both closed and open source development. Their commitment to the principals of open source, much less free software, are very questionable. Today many corporations have decided that open source is fundamental to their business and marketing plans. Conventional wisdom holds that sharing is the best game in town, yet the creative destruction of capitalism and the volatility of technology can turn today’s conventional wisdom into tomorrow’s folly.
Nonetheless, the community should not view the corporatization of their beloved technology as necessarily a bad thing. The industry’s heavy hitters have the financial muscle and marketing power to make open source software the de facto standard, as has already happened in servers and is likely to happen in the embedded space. Chip makers like Intel, AMD and Via now treat community requests for documentation and drivers very seriously due to the stable of companies now promoting GNU/Linux. The community was ignored or disparaged in the industry when it was just a rag-tag band of netizens, but no one is laughing at GNU/Linux now that many members of the community are now being paid by the likes of IBM, Novel, Red Hat and Oracle.
The goal of the GNU Project was to create a free operating system which allowed people to have a viable alternative to proprietary systems. It would have been possible to achieve this goal without corporate support as GNU/Linux in the mid-1990s aptly demonstrated, but it would have been a system almost impossible to use by an ordinary person, who wasn’t willing to shop for special hardware and spend hours configuring the system just to achieve basic functionality. The reason that GNU/Linux “just works” today is the fact that a number of companies like Intel are writing open source drivers for their hardware or releasing the technical documentation on their hardware as AMD does so the community can create decent drivers. There are still a few types of hardware such as wireless cards, webcams, fingerprint readers and flash memory readers which may not be supported, but for the most part GNU/Linux can be installed anywhere and it automagically works without having to resort to command line wizardry. The corporate payrolls are to thank for many of the recent advances. We can thank IBM for Ted T’so’s work on the Ext4 file system and Intel for the new USB 3 drivers and GEM graphics memory manager. If the long-standing joke among Linux aficionados about “world domination” ever comes to pass, it will be corporate backing which makes it happen.
These gifts from the corporate world, however, now subject free software to the vagaries and vicissitudes of large transnational corporations. The recent acquisition of SUN by Oracle underscores the risks inherent in dependence on large corporations. In many ways, SUN more than any other single corporation controlled the future of Free Software.