|Issue No 109
|31 August 2001
A World Without Microsoft
Extracted from Red Pepper
Heather Sharp argues that all technologies involve political choices and moral values. Computer software is no exception, and it is Bill Gates' choices that dominate.
If you own a PC, you've got your own software factory. If you can write good software, multi-billion pound companies need you -- but you could string together the words and numbers that shape the world as well from a bedroom in Calcutta as from their plush offices in Silicon Valley. The consumers own the means of production, the workers hold all the cards: welcome to the future, a world where the anarchy of software economics has the potential to overturn capitalism.
Or, alternatively, there's the doomsday scenario:
"We are about to enter an age that would have thrilled all the dictators of the past. An age where machines can be a totally obedient, non-human, police force allowing absolute control over the movement and interaction of every individual," says Tony Stanco of the embryonic radical software company FreeDevelopers.net.
To him there is a war on. If things keep going as they are now, before we know it the profit-making strategies of "proprietary" companies such as Microsoft will leave us with our communications, commerce and, potentially, democracy controlled by programmes no-one can scrutinise and few can understand; created and marketed to us by unaccountable billionaires: "Since proprietary software is by definition unseen code not subject to scrutiny by the public, it gives too much power to a few, unelected businessmen, mostly from the US. Looking back on human history, nightmarish scenarios cannot be hard to imagine," says Stanco.
The battle he is engaged in is between what is widely known as Open Source software, where the code the software is written in is made public -- such as the GNU/Linux operating system -- and proprietary software, where the code is kept secret. During the decade which saw Microsoft ascend to levels of monopoly deemed illegal by the US District Court, thousands of volunteer software developers have been beavering away in computer labs and bedrooms across the world, writing code everyone can see, reuse and modify, usually for free, to create an alternative to Microsoft-style profiteering.
They've undeniably become a mass, global, 21st-century social movement. But it is hardly a clear-cut, politically committed resistance movement -- or even a straightforward single-issue campaign. It is a convergence of individuals and groups ranging from philanthropists, to libertarians, to free market believers, to nerds with more passion for the minutiae of operating systems than any political ideology. And as the movement matures and its principles gain commercial ground, the community is cracking along its ideological fault-lines.
The Open Source movement is significant and interesting to the left for three key reasons. Firstly, among the benefits touted by Open Source proponents are challenges both to large-scale corporate domination and to north-south economic neo-colonialism. Secondly, Open Source developers are united by the belief that working in collaboration rather than competition produces better results and liberates their own creativity. The community they have created, where intellectual satisfaction, personal principles and human relationships are more important than fat salaries, is a living alternative to the individualism of the average big-buck business environment. Thirdly, the issues the movement is addressing and struggling with give an insight into the new shape of technology-driven capitalism.
Keeping Code Hostage
Microsoft doesn't kill babies or chop down trees. Bill Gates gives billions to charity. But the mere mention of the bespectacled man who brings us ever-new but temperamental versions of the Windows Operating System consistently elicits snarls from computer users the world over. The reasons cited vary from frustrations with over-priced, frequently-crashing software to the company's attempts to take over the world. The variations are symptomatic of the range of principles informing and driving Open Source advocates.
You don't need a computer science degree to understand how software giants' profit-making strategies disempower developers and users. Software is initially written in the words and numbers of a particular programming language. For the computer to understand it, it is turned into binary (strings of ones and zeros) by another programme, a process which is hard to reverse.
This means you need the original source code to see how the software works. Early software was distributed with its source code, but companies (and not just Microsoft) quickly adopted the 'proprietary' model, keeping their code secret and patenting their software. If you can get their code at all, you pay through the nose for it. Reusing it or copying it is either tightly restricted or completely illegal.
Open Source software provides the source code along with the programme. In it's purest form, it is distributed under "copyleft"-style licensing, which give users rights to copy, modify, study and redistribute it, providing the software they produce also guarantees these rights to users. Throughout much if its history, Open Source software has generally been available at no cost, although business users pay for commissioned software designed and customised for their own operations. In recent years, companies have begun to build viable retail enterprises by bundling Open Source software applications together with support services. Some of the various licenses that have been developed under the Open Source banner allow developers to modify and copy Open Source software for resale, providing that the same freedoms are carried through and guaranteed to users of the modified version.
These rights mean, essentially, that every line of computer code written is a gift for the greater good of humanity. They create a world where users can dig in the innards of the programmes they use, learn how they work, adapt them for their own purposes, disseminate them to thousands of software developers across the world for testing, then make copies for friends when all the bugs are fixed. Instead of guarding their work jealously and keeping breakthroughs to themselves, it enables developers to work collaboratively, peer reviewing and refining each others' work.
A Broad Church
Different members of the Open Source community will stress different arguments for the superiority of the model, depending on their underlying principles and beliefs. Firstly, there are purely pragmatic arguments about efficiency and quality. Even if you believe whole-heartedly in free market economics and think software is for nothing but making money, there's still a case for Open Source. The level of Beta-testing and bug-fixes possible if an early version of a piece of software is released into the public sphere for interested developers to refine is much more rigorous than if the code as kept under wraps and testing confined to the company that produced it. Unsurprisingly therefore, one of the main qualities fans of the Open Source operating system GNU/Linux cite is its stability.
From the user's point of view, particularly for business users who have specific needs, there's the choice between proprietary software available off the shelves or commissioning something specific from scratch. But if they had rights to modify software they already possessed, they could adapt existing applications for their own purposes. Also, if a developer finds a bug in a commercial programme, he or she is unable to fix it without the source code. If the software is proprietary and the company that produced it has deemed fixing that particular bug uneconomic, the bug remains unfixed and continues to irritate users.
These arguments extend quite naturally to issues of the creativity and personal fulfilment of developers: many find the proprietary model frustrating as it prevents them pooling their discoveries and brainpower. Work for proprietary companies is often described as continually "reinventing the wheel": progress is kept secret and work duplicated.
After four months and some soul-searching, Milwaukee student Daniel Bauman jacked in working for the proprietary LS Research Inc to write Free Software: "When you write some software and you are really excited about it then somebody asks 'hey, can I use it?' and you have to tell them 'no', it is heart-breaking," he explains.
Then there is a series of political arguments around economic equality and the needs of minorities. As computer processor power continues to increase and software is updated with flashy features to take advantage of it, it is never long before a shiny new high-end machine feels obsolete. Open Source software, however, can be designed and adapted for a older-style processor machine donated to an inner city project or modified as a small-scale business in a developing country slowly upgrades its hardware. Another oft-cited example is that of minority languages: for example, it makes little economic sense for a major company to produce Icelandic-language versions of applications, but if the source code is unrestricted, developers in Iceland can adapt it themselves.
Furthermore, software, requiring little in the way of raw materials and public infrastructure, is a key industry in upcoming poorer nations. However, as Robert Chassel, the founding director of the Free Software Foundation (the sister charity supporting the GNU Project) explains, in a group of programmers he recently addressed in Thailand, only one had never seen the source code of Microsoft Windows: "It meant the others did not have access to a major portion of their new economy." The proprietary model is also leading to US pressure on governments in the south to enforce anti-copying laws, which could be costly and -- especially in countries battling corruption -- problematic. "It's a neo-colonialist situation," adds Chassel. "They become dependent."
Thirdly, there are philanthropic and idealistic principles based on challenging the power of the few with the co-operation of the many. Richard Stallman founded the GNU Project, which aimed to create an entire Open Source operating system. Renowned for his idealism after 16 years of developing and campaigning, he says it's about "the resource of goodwill -- willingness to help your neighbour" and likens it to recipe sharing: "If readers don't write software, they probably cook. If they cook they probably share recipes. And they probably change recipes. It's natural to share something with other people. But those who want to profit by controlling everyone's activities try to stop us from sharing with each other -- because if we can't help each other, we're helpless. We're dependent on them." Extended, this leads to the fears of people such as Stanco, that proprietary software has the power to "enslave the world", because of the extent to which software controls -- and will control -- human life.
Also, by avoiding duplication of effort, an industry based on Open Source software would theoretically progress faster for the greater good. As Chassell puts it: "Do you want to spend your whole life reinventing the wheel -- when instead of inventing the wheel, you could invent something more useful -- like an axel, or a cart that uses two wheels?"
Finally, there is a strand to the thinking of the more radical sections of the Open Source community which could be classed as libertarian. "It's a question of whether you have the right to do things or not," says Chassell. "Say you live in a house and you want to move the furniture around, should you have the legal right to move that furniture, or should you be forbidden? It's the same thing with software, either you as a programmer move the furniture, or you hire somebody to do it."
An Alternative Community
There are now tens of thousands of developers, scattered from Silicon Valley to Asia, Africa and Latin America, committed to creating software under the Open Source and Free Software banners.
Early software was mostly unrestricted. The UNIX operating system was initially distributed along with its source code in the 1970s, but was later commercialised by AT&T in 1979 as the proprietary model gained prominence. The Open Source movement grew with the success of the Sendmail programme, developed in 1979 and now responsible for around 75 per cent of the email sent over the net. It gained critical momentum in 1989 when Lynas Torvalds, a student in Helsinki, wrote and released the core or "kernel" of his software operating system, Linux.
Out of idealism, sheer anorakiness and the desire for programming kudos, thousands -- estimates range from 3,000 to 40,000 -- of unpaid developers and contributors expanded, tested and refined the kernel. Meanwhile, Stallman's GNU Project had developed much of an operating system, but still lacked a kernel. In 1992, GNU and Linux were combined, creating the GNU/Linux operating system now used by an estimated 10 million people.
More recently, in 1998 Netscape started giving its Communicator 5.0 web browser away free and released the source code. Then major software vendors, including Computer Associates, Corel, IBM, Informix, Interbase, Oracle and Sybase, started to make their products compatible with GNU/Linux. By mid-2000, the Open Source Apache web server was used on around 60 per cent of websites.
Collaboration and proliferation on this scale couldn't have happened without the internet. Log on to any of the numerous Open Source and Free Software websites and newsgroups and you'll find developers discussing the minutiae of operating systems and applications, pointing out bugs, sharing fixes. Try to install Linux on your own machine, and a community of initiated users is online with the answers to problems "newbies" are likely to encounter.
The community that has developed has had a substantial impact on the industry, and has also created a ground-breaking alternative professional environment where the work itself is more important than profits or pay cheques. Developers face a stark choice between the fat salaries major companies offer and working for little but their ideals, yet many, such as Bauman, still opt for the latter: "I am making sacrifices right now. I know I could go somewhere and make a ridiculous amount of money, but I know this would not make me happy."
Idealism and Anoraks
It is the opposition between the pragmatic and the idealistic/libertarian rationales which now threatens to split the movement. To Stallman, the battle is about lifestyle, community and principles, not just good programmes, and all proprietary software is an infringement of personal freedom. The GNU project has always preferred the term Free Software to Open Source, with "free" meaning "unrestricted" rather than "no cost." The linguistic distinction between Free Software and Open Source has developed into a split as collaboratively-developed software released with its source code has proved its worth on the commercial market. Proprietary companies are releasing Open Source programmes, companies describing their business as Open Source are packaging software under the Open Source banner together with proprietary programmes or are releasing source code but restricting its use.
To Open Source proponents who are driven by pragmatism and efficiency arguments, this is good news: more Open Source software is reaching users. But to Stallman, supporting this is a sell-out: "[Their views] wouldn't lead you to set a goal of chasing all the non-free software out of your computer because it's bad, because it doesn't respect your freedom. But our views lead logically to the idea that a non-free programme is infringing on your freedom." Contrasting the Open Source movement with the Free Software purists, he says: "[It's a] sort of namby-pamby movement in that it doesn't say anything is wrong. It just says 'isn't it a little nicer if we do it this way?' "
A 21st Century Struggle
Software is strange beast. It's a substance-less product made out of chunks of maths, not steel parts or woven fibres. Some elements of it are generic and reusable, others are more specialised. It can be mass-produced by anyone, without raw materials, and transferred in seconds across the world. Such idiosyncrasies, coupled with the experience of the Open Source movement, raise several questions about the shape of 21st-century capitalism and resistance to it.
Firstly, what is the balance of power? Chassell points out that, as software is so easily copied, anyone who owns a PC effectively owns a software factory, but the proprietary model makes using it illegal: "In a sense the question is 'should a person who owns their own means of production have the right to use their own means of production?' " Factor in the difficulties and cost to governments of policing something as easily copied as software, and the legal costs of patenting and copyrighting sections of code as a percentage of the costs of production, and the industry looks very different from conventional manufacturing.
Furthermore, the developers are organising against and rejecting their employers' controlling strategies, and Stanco points out that the strength of their position comes from the fact that they themselves, rather than machinery or infrastructure, are the key assets of software companies: "In traditional companies, workers unite to have a countervailing power. But if software developers unite, they are the only ones with the power." Therefore, he adds: "If we can persuade the developers to unite, we win."
Secondly, can idealism stand up in the market place? And if so, who benefits? Cashflow has always been a difficult issue for the Open Source and Free Software movements. Companies have only started making significant money from Open Source software in the last two years when several companies, such as North Carolina-based Red Hat Inc, exploded onto the market. Stanco's FreeDevelopers company is currently little more than a group of 450 developers, mainly twenty-somethings, located in 25 different countries, aiming to start their own company which will pay developers to write free software. He sees commercial Open Source companies as philosophical allies, but feels their business model risks exploiting developers: "The biggest difference between us and them is who gets to share in the wealth.
They have a more traditional model where those at the top of those organisations reap most of the rewards, and rely on the unpaid work of thousands of free software developers who volunteer their effort for the sake of their free software ideals."
Thirdly, who should own software? Stallman describes protesting on the streets 10 years ago when Lotus tried to patent a particular set of menus used in a spreadsheet application. Elements of software can be very generic, and Open Source advocates are now organising against moves to allow similar software patenting in Europe. To Stanco, software is -- and should be treated as -- public infrastructure akin to roads. The company's aim is to cash in on government initiatives in countries such as the US, France, China, Brazil, Japan and Germany to pay for the development of Free Software. They're already moving on these principles, as in the meantime they're developing their own software for online voting, which could both realise their aspirations for a democratically structured company and create an open, accountable prototype for future electronic electoral systems.
While the Free Software movement has already created its own Microsoft-free community, to Stanco it faces a battle to the death between two paradigms which are too antithetical to coexist: "When we hit the radar screens of proprietary they will come at us with full force," he warns. "Since their current power over the developers comes from dividing developers and keeping the code secret, they know they have to discredit us or lose all their power. Since there are hundreds of billions of dollars, plus immense personal empires, at stake, we are expecting an incredible campaign against us." The world's hearts, minds and hard-drives are still up for grabs.
Heather Sharp is editor of online news agency Out There News at http://www.megastories.com
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