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<nettime> The Linux Storm
Pit Schultz on Mon, 17 Aug 1998 19:04:57 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> The Linux Storm


The Linux Storm
[by anonymous]

                In his thought provoking paper, "The Cathedral
                and the Bazaar", Eric Raymond has proposed a
                model for understanding the creation of open
                source software. Even Netscape, a major
                commercial software player, has consigned the
                further development of its browser to the
                workings of the "Bazaar".

                While the "Bazaar" model identifies many
                mechanisms of successful open source
                development, it does not expose the dynamics.
                Eric explains that a major motivator for building
                open source software is the attention and credit
                paid to its developers. Strong as this force is,
                other factors must be examined which motivate
                the attention seeking and attention paying on
                such a large scale and in such an organized
                fashion.

                To understand the dynamics of the "Bazaar",
                you must examine the forces which impel
                alternative software movements including open
                source software, free software, and, in general,
                community software. These forces resemble
                those of a storm. In a storm, a complex weather
                pattern appears chaotic locally but is really a
                well organized pattern of forces and conditions
                when viewed from a high enough vantage point.
                Linux and indeed the entire Internet can be
                viewed as patterns in a global information
                storm.

                So what are these forces and conditions? First,
                every wide spread alternative social movement
                requires a powerful, even obvious, impetus
                against which to react: in the Reformation it was
                the Roman Catholic Church. In the early days of
                the Internet, it was IBM and mainframe
                hegemony. Today it is Microsoft. Just as the
                German Reformation enfranchised specific
                groups previously disaffected (specifically,
                Luther and the German princes), the Internet
                empowered individuals and groups previously
                outside the traditionally well funded technocracy
                that supported and in turn was nurtured by IBM.
                Linux has been propelled by the same forces.
                Currently, a major share of commercial software
                resources is concentrated around Microsoft
                products like a large low pressure area.
                However, such a coalescence of power and
                influence disenfranchises many for whom high
                cost and restrictive licenses (lack of freedom
                really) prevent full and easy access to computing
                resources. So alternative paths are sought. Like
                the weather, alternatives may appear randomly
                and then dissipate. Typically, an additional
                sustaining force, an opposing low pressure area,
                is required. For Luther this pressure was
                provided by the German princes, for the early
                days of the Internet it was provided by ARPA,
                and for Linux, it has been provided by the
                Internet community itself. In the case of Linux,
                the Internet community desperately needed a
                competent OS platform. AT&T had shut out
                many Unix users with restrictive licenses and
                high fees. UC Berkeley had crippled BSD by
                removing all vendor proprietary code which
                adapted it to the underlying hardware: you
                could study it but not run it! Many saw a
                potential in Andy Tanenbaum's Minix to
                counterbalance an increasingly unfree Unix. But
                Minix was incomplete, did not have critical mass
                and its source distribution became too
                restrictive. These conditions inspired the
                community OS effort, initially derived from
                Minix, which produced Linux. Linux became
                readily available and increasingly capable. When
                it aligned with FSF licensing and could support
                the powerful GNU tools as well as run on a wide
                range of inexpensive hardware, a truly useful
                operating system platform was born. The
                Internet community finally had a way to run a
                fully networked Unix cheaply and reliably with
                no strings attached.

                Linux appeared almost randomly on the scene
                but quickly gathered into a well organized storm
                because it had a powerful force to react against.
                It also had a sponsor.

                Therefore, the Linux "Bazaar" is not simply a
                loose collection of vendors and other
                proponents, motivated only by mutual
                recognition. The "Bazaar" really operates on a
                larger stage. When forces of the larger stage
                organize around a dominant restrictive group, a
                reactionary force is generated in the remaining
                community. Over time, this reactive force
                propels various alternatives. If one or more of
                these alternatives can find support (the Internet
                community in the case of Linux), then a new
                "movement" is born which is sustained and even
                enriched by the powerful forces of the larger
                stage. Ironically the more dominant Microsoft
                becomes, the more powerful the reactive forces
                become, and the more fuel is fed to movements
                such as Linux. If an unencumbered BSD had
                been available earlier running on inexpensive
                Intel hardware, BSD might have become the
                seed for this storm. But the same drama would
                have unfolded: thesis and antithesis on a
                dialectic stage whose imperative will persist until
                Microsoft runs out of energy or dissipates its
                focus. Microsoft has only to look over its
                shoulder at the cycle of hegemony and
                superannuation revealed by a once almost
                omnipotent old technocrat: IBM.


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