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Firefox, Linux, Inc., and Media History
Sunday, January 23 2005 @ 07:57 PM EST

The old media can't tell any story without looking for an angle. They like controversy, of course. I had one journalist ask me once for an interview to try to stir up some controversy with another journalist, and when I refused, he said that was the only story he was interested in. And there is an article today about Firefox with the headline, "Teen is co-creator of Firefox browser." I couldn't tell if they meant that as a compliment or a dig, but it's a cute angle, when you consider that Firefox is spreading like, well, I have to say it, like wild fire and continues to cut into IE's share of the browser market.

Far more interesting to me is Blake Ross's blog, the guy in question, where he talks about his vision for what he wanted Firefox to be and what he thinks is the reason for its success:

You’d be hard pressed to believe it with the ongoing media circus, but Firefox has humble origins in a product that—if everything went as planned—was designed to be invisible to the person using it. I remember sitting on IRC with Dave, Ben and Asa painstakingly debating feature after feature, button after button, pixel after pixel, always trying to answer the same basic question: does this help mom use the web? If the answer was no, the next question was: does this help mom’s teenage son use the web? If the answer was still no, the feature was either excised entirely or (occasionally) relegated to config file access only. Otherwise, it was often moved into an isolated realm that was outside of mom’s reach but not her son’s, like the preferences window.

This policy emerged from our basic belief that, for the 99% of the world who don’t shop at Bang & Olufsen, a technology should be nothing more than a means to an end. Software is no different. In this case, people had plenty of obstacles to the web already—popup ads, spyware, and that . . . monkey who gets punched and keeps coming back for more—before Netscape decided that the only way to surf was with the aid of twelve managers, fourteen not-so-subtle links back to AOL web properties and other inane gadgetry. This is why, even though plenty of people made fun of us for it, Ben’s original “Why Firefox?” document celebrated that “Firefox offers 2% more space to web pages than Mozilla, 4% more than Internet Explorer, and a whopping 10% more than Opera.” Giving people unadulterated access to the web became something of a religion, and every wasted pixel, button or dialog that impeded it was a demon that nagged at us. Every time someone was “pulled out of the dream", every time they had to stop and realize that they were using a browser called Firefox and not just the amorphous “Web,” was a personal failure.

I guess the media thinks unless they jazz it up and simplify it, we won't be interested. But personally, I don't care much how old Ross is, although it's fine to know as a side point. It's not, however, the interesting part. What is interesting to me is his concept of what a browser should be like and how he went about implementing his idea.

Sometimes I think about how history will be written in the future. How will they know then what was true now, when it is all told in a skewed, hyped way? That is particularly true about Linux and FOSS. It is so hard for the media to understand the open process and that there are no stars, in the sense they think of, just the result, and some people who have more or better skills to contribute and are willing to work harder. It's almost the same thing as a star, I guess, if you squint.

So when readers started to send me a BusinessWeek article about Linux, Inc., I wasn't at first going to mention it, because there are some facts in it that are just not so, like the part about GPL code having to be free as in beer, and some of the details give me that old Rashomon feeling, like reading that Larry McVoy was the "peacemaker" who saved the day at a critical point in Linux history. Then there is a gratuitous and cruel dig at rms, who is frankly a genius and belongs in a separate category from the rest of us.

Lots of folks thought Einstein was personally peculiar, you know. With a genius, it's totally irrelevant.

So I felt a bit suspicious. But then, so many of you sent this article to me, telling me it was the best nontech article ever on Linux, I decided I must be wrong. So I wrote to some folks who help me decide such things and I asked them their opinions, and I also wrote back to one reader, Chuck Tryon, who had sent a particularly good summary of the article when he sent me the link. Here is what he had sent:

It gets pretty much all the basic facts straight, but even more surprising, it seems to understand the balance that Linux is beginning to strike between "free" and "corporate". It proclaims (in somewhat gushing terms) that Linux has taken on a lot of the characteristics of a successful business (greater organization, cooperation with big business, less dependence on a single individual at the top, etc.), without abandoning the free ranging style of Linus' open development model, and his uncanny ability to direct people without necessarily telling them what to do. It seems to grok the nature of RedHat and IBM's motivations, as well as how they make money off of a "free" product. The author takes a few pot-shots at RMS's personality and style, while still recognizing him as one of the people who really got this FREE software idea started, but then, even RMS's greatest supporters have to admit he can be a little off-the-wall when it comes to personal style.


Cost isn't the only reason that companies are switching to Linux. The data processor Axciom Corp. recently shifted some servers to the operating system, after using Unix in the past. Alex Dietz, the company's chief information officer, says he's thinking about replacing the Windows operating system with Linux on the company's desktop computers. One important reason: Axciom doesn't want to be too dependent on Microsoft. "[Linux] has an innate guarantee that you won't be held hostage," says Dietz.

Not often you find that kind of observation in a Business magazine.

I wrote back and asked him to please elaborate. Charles sent me an answer that convinced me I was indeed wrong and had missed the most important message from the article. So here is the link again, and I'll share, with his permission, the email that got me out of my fog.

But also, for the sake of historians, here are some links:

LKML summary of November 1999 A discussion about bottlenecks. At the end, Linus: "..because Linux is _NOT_ a 'one entity does everything' proposition, it is NOT the case that I go out on the net and find everything I want to have in the full package. I very much depend on people like David Miller, Alan Cox, Ingo Molnar, and a hundred other people who not only maintain their own subsystems, but also help me in maintaining those subsystems as part of the larger whole." -- So Linus was delegating long before the McVoy incident.
LKML archives for January 2000These are "kernel traffic" newletters which summarise the significant activity on the LKML.
Bitkeeper flame war -- "The battle was joined when Larry McVoy started pushing his commercial BitKeeper project. An ugly flamewar quickly ensewed."[sic]
LKML summary for September 1999, probably the start of the "mutiny" about the development process. But I think you will see that it isn't really accurate to portray it as power being wrested from Linus' unwilling hands. He was glad to find a better way. The only issue was, what was that better way.

Unfortunately the links from the older kernel traffics don't work, but you can use the subject lines and date ranges to find the posts in Google. For example:

From: Linus Torvalds
Subject: Re: New BK License Problem?
Date: Sun, 6 Oct 2002 05:50:50 +0000 (UTC)

If you search for that, you'll find Alan Cox and Linus discussing Bitkeeper and why Linus liked using it, basically because it freed him from the drudgery of being a human CMVC, and it was to him the best tool then available for the task, despite all the controversy over it being a proprietary product.

Here's Charles' answer to my question: what did he think was the theme of the article and BusinessWeek's motivation in publishing it?


Leave it to you to ask hard questions... You mean you want me to THINK??? ;-)

I spent some time thinking about the article, and in particular Business Week's possible motivations. It is, after all, a Business focused publication. I think their interest is in the way the "Business" of Linux, or as they say, 'Linux Inc.", is run. It's a new and interesting business model, which has implications beyond the software industry.

What the article says is that, in spite of some bumps along the way, the Open Source business model has continued to mature. From what I've heard, there really was a time when Linus was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the kernel, and a lot of people were frustrated that contributions were getting missed or ignored The whole even/odd release number scheme was implemented to address the problem of implementing major architectural changes -- changes that would cause major interruptions if they were cut into the current "released" kernel. As Larry McVoy said, big problems were brewing. However, the article states that the Linux process has shown that it really is scalable, and with some key changes, Linux has continued to grow.

Again, approaching the topic from a business perspective, the key question is, is Linux stable enough to stake your business on? Businesses like to see big names like IBM and Novell and HP behind Linux, because it gives them confidence that Linux is going to be there for the long run. However the article goes on to point out that, even though some big powerful companies are throwing their weight behind Linux, they aren't taking it over. In fact, they can't really take it over because of the way the license works. In other words, it doesn't look like Linux will ever become just another IBM product, even if IBM is pushing a huge amount of money at Linux, and 90% of the contributions to the kernel are from corporate sponsors.

Even more important, one-time enemies are finding that they are better off by sharing their contributions.

Otherwise fierce competitors -- think IBM and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) -- are demonstrating that they can benefit from embracing the open-source philosophy of sharing work. By collaborating on the operating system, they all get a stable foundation on which to build tech projects and save millions in programming costs.

As I mentioned before, the article also focuses on the fact that Linux is less dependent on a single individual. Again, this gives businesses more confidence that, if something happens to that one individual, the whole organization isn't going to come crashing down. Also, as the bottleneck of a single individual who has to hand check every contribution has been eliminated, "Linux Inc." has continued to grow in its ability to support growing complexity, and still keep up the quality of the code.

While it's not strictly business-related, I think that, in this world of CEO salaries in the mega-millions, and the constant scandals of corporations ripping off their customers, investors and employees, Linux is a refreshing break.

Begun as a meritocracy, Linux continues to operate that way. In a world where everybody can look at every bit of code that is submitted, only the A+ stuff gets in and only the best programmers rise to become Torvalds' top aides. "The lieutenants get picked -- but not by me," explains Torvalds. "Somebody who gets things done, and shows good taste -- people just start sending them suggestions and patches. I didn't design it this way. It happens because this is the way people work naturally."

Here you have a piece of fundamental computer infrastructure, with billions of dollars in market share, and growing in leaps and bounds, and at the top you have Real People:

Red Hat's Pennington doesn't covet expensive wheels, proudly pointing to his 2001 Toyota Corolla in the parking lot, which he jokes is "fully loaded."

For his part, Torvalds has been amply rewarded for his role, but he's no Bill Gates billionaire. OSDL pays him a salary of nearly $200,000. In addition, he sold initial public offering shares that he got as gifts from a couple of Linux companies, including VA Linux Systems. That helped him afford his house and put money away for his daughters' educations.

I have always said that, if you REALLY want to know what an author is thinking, look at the last paragraph. That's the lasting thought that he or she is trying to leave you with.

Indeed, Linux Inc. has emerged as a model for collaborating in a new way on software development, which could have reverberations throughout the business world. Its essence is captured in one of the mottoes of the open-source world: Give a little, take a lot. In a business environment where efficiency rules, that's a potent formula -- maybe even strong enough to knock mighty Microsoft down a peg.

They don't call it "Free Software" or even "Open Source", mostly because it is a model that may begin to catch on in other businesses beyond just software. There are powerful concepts, ones that can even take on the brutal tactics of the one corporation that has come to symbolize the ability to succeed through nasty and sometimes marginally legal tactics. There are still a lot of people out there who look on Microsoft as the Hero, the little company that overcame the giant IBM, through determination and spunk. However, Microsoft simply replaced one tyrant with another, more powerful one, a tyrant known for its tendency of ripping apart its competition through any means available to them. Linux Inc., for the first time in recent memory, presents a way to make corporations a little more human, and to even stand against the bullies. Maybe, just maybe, corporations can begin to make money by providing real products to real people, instead of just ripping them off.

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