I am on sabbatical for two quarters, and I am taking the opportunity to write about free (and open source) software for the first time. It is ballooning quickly, chaotically, from a conference paper into a book–in a good way I think. I am trying to relax and let the inquiry carry me where it will, not trying to discipline it into the conference paper. That might be bad for the conference paper, but it is good for the overall inquiry (I hope). We will see.
One of the many side flows I have been carried off into was the case of former Microsoft CEO (and current LA Clippers owner!) Steve Ballmer, who in 2001 said “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.” The take-away from this is usually to vilify Ballmer because he called Linux a mean name, but I think there is something quite important here. I think Ballmer is really worried. What he is getting at is that the GNU General Public License, under which much Linux software is distributed, prevents the person receiving the software from enclosing it. That is, when you receive software under the open-source GPL, you are not allowed to then turn around and make the code closed-source (i.e. you can’t transform it into “intellectual property”), even if you alter it significantly. Since Microsoft’s empire is built on intellectual property, on code that is very closed-source, Ballmer is genuinely worried about the possibility that code licensed under the GPL, if it got into Microsoft’s stream, would bar them from claiming intellectual property rights on the whole stream. [Here the scenario would be something like: a certain tool that is licensed under the GPL becomes dominant (something like, say, OpenSSH) and more or less has to be used as a part of a larger entity (say, a server OS).] But Ballmer’s fear could have run even deeper. Even if Microsoft were vigilant in keeping any GPL code out of their products, if everyone else adopted the GPL ethos, which is to make software freely available, open, and held in common, where would that leave Microsoft, which is dependent on the model of software as enclosed intellectual property?
A less-quoted Ballmer attack on Linux came in 2000, at Microsoft’s financial analysts’ meeting, where he said
Linux is a tough competitor. There’s no company called Linux, there’s barely a Linux road map. Yet Linux sort of springs organically from the earth. And it had, you know, the characteristics of communism that people love so very, very much about it. That is, it’s free. And I’m not trying to make fun of it, because it’s a real competitive issue. Today, I would say, we still don’t see a lot of Linux competition in most quarters on the desktop, and we see a lot of Linux competition in some server markets. And we could either say, hey, Linux is going to roll over the world, but I don’t see that happening. That’s not what’s going on right now.
He is sort of right about Linux. It did spring organically from the earth, in a way. Significant parts of it are still community-managed. But corporations (Red Hat, Canonical, Sun, and now Google) have played and continue to play a very large role in its development and distribution. It does have characteristics of communism, actual communism rather than State-socialism-that-claims-to-be-communism, in that the code is meant to be held in common by all. And, interestingly, in 2000 Ballmer got the competition part mostly right. Linux was not and has not become competitive on the desktop. But Linux very much became competitive in the (probably more important) server market, where is now holds a controlling position over Microsoft. And, what Ballmer did not see, Linux (as the core of the Android operating system) became the dominant software on phones and tablets as well.
The struggle is over, and Microsoft lost. Their closed-source, proprietary model, which was absolutely central to their success, has been mostly superseded by the open-source, un-owned, free-of-cost model. In a way, Linux did roll over the world.
The question now is not so much open- vs. closed-source software, but whether open-source software will be developed, distributed, and maintained by active communities of people themselves, or whether that work will be done for them, by large corporations. I think it is a vital question, and it is one the Linux community has lots of experience with.