Originally Published: Friday, 2 March 2001 Author: Sean Jewett
Published to: daily_feature/Linux.com Feature Story Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Book Review: Rebel Code: Inside the Linux and Open Source Revolution

Sean Jewett gives us a first hand look at the new book from Glyn Moody, Rebel Code: Inside the Linux and Open Source Revolution.

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[Rebel Code book cover] 1984. It was a year marked with several important events. The Olympics were held in Los Angeles, and it is, of course, the title to the infamous George Orwell novel. Many computer enthusiasts also remember it as the year Apple ran a Super Bowl commercial still considered legendary in the advertising world. 1984 also marked the year Steven Levy published his watershed book on the rise of computing as we know it, Hackers.

In the years since Hackers was published, we've seen many trends in computing come and go. The brainchild of Woz and Jobs, the Apple II, would be forced off the market in the early 90's . The then unknown Macintosh arrived (and nearly died a few times). Most computer users switched from a command line to a GUI-based interface. Hackers left off with a radical idea from a man who Levy termed "The Last of the True Hackers." The last "True Hacker" is no less than Richard Stallman. Stallman's idea was starting the GNU project, the beginning of the free software movement, the grandfather of today's "Open Source Revolution." The GNU project would prove its importance less than 10 years from the publication date of Levy's Hackers.

A lot has happened in those 10 years, from Levy explaining the basics of Stallman's idea to seeing it pay off a decade later. The question is, how did Stallman do it? And more importantly, what took place in the time period from the proposal, "information wants to be free," through seeing the adoption of this ideal by behemoths such as IBM?

In his book Rebel Code: Inside the Linux and Open Source Revolution, Glyn Moody attempts to answer these questions while chronicling the revolution Richard Stallman started. Published by Perseus Publishing, this book has an attractive dust cover with penguins interspersed with 0's and 1's, certain to grab the attention of any computer enthusiast or Linux user. According to the cover, "Glyn is a London based writer who has tracked, written and used Linux since nearly its inception." It becomes immediately apparent to the reader that Moody has done his homework.

Rebel Code takes a moment to introduce the main characters before backtracking to the foundation that was laid years before. Moody rightfully acknowledges Levy's Hackers and proceeds to fill in the years between Hackers and the rise of Linux and most importantly, what Stallman and the GNU project did during those years from 1984 to 1991.

Moody's painstaking research of newsgroups, mailing lists, and interviews with the personalities of the GNU/Linux revolution pays off. Rebel Code touches upon everything from the rise of the World Wide Web and the web browser, coining the term "Open Source," to the history and importance of Samba, to Netscape's and IBM's decision to join the Cause. Rebel Code is a complete and very accurate history and "Who's who?" of personalities, history, and projects that have put Linux and free software in the position they are in today.

The book makes for a good read but is sometimes rough on the edges. Often concepts, projects, and people are introduced near the end of a paragraph. Those people or projects are then written about in the next paragraph as if the reader already knows their significance in relation to the current subject. While the average Linux user probably understands the context, the casual reader may be left without a full understanding of the importance of that person or project. Part of this issue can be attributed to the target audience. Moody seems to assume a certain level of knowledge, but at other times basic subjects for Linux users, such as clustering, are tediously defined. While it is impossible to satisfy the reading level of every user, Rebel Code could benefit from a consistent understanding of its reader's knowledge.

I found only one small error in Rebel Code. In Chapter 11, page 183, near the bottom, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) is identified as being part of the University of Indiana at Urbana-Champaign. Urbana-Champaign is located in Illinois. It was a disappointing error that was not repeated when referenced later in the chapter.

Moody did do a wonderful job pulling together and organizing the volumes of information that shaped where GNU and Linux are today. Nowhere else is this more evident than in Chapter 12, which covers IBM's adoption of Open Source.

Rebel Code shines when it tells the story of IBM. It is an amazing story of internal struggles, much like the struggles Sun engineers faced earlier in the book. From winning over the various product teams to selling Legal and Marketing on why Open Source and Linux were important to IBM, Moody covers and spells out how IBM came to their decision. At the same time, the author parallels this decision with Netscape's and demonstrates why Open Source is so important, not only to those two companies but to the rest of the Linux community. According to Moody, what IBM gains by adopting Open Source technology and Open Sourcing their own projects is a level playing field. Rather than supporting three or four different products each with their own web server implementation, IBM standardized on Apache. Once standardized on Apache, IBM could make their products plug in and benefit from Apache's legendary stability and open architechture. It results in a cost savings to IBM, and in turn brings on another set of Apache developers to contribute to the development of the server.

Rebel Code, despite some flaws, is a must read for those using Linux. It helps put into perspective the decisions that were made early on, and sheds light on the revolution to come. From the competition, BSD and Minix, to the choice of tk and gtk widgets, to KDE vs. Gnome, to Linux vs. Microsoft, Moody does a wonderful job in pulling together all of the elements that have shaped and will shape Linux in the years to come. It is a fascinating look into the people, ideas, concepts, and standards that give users a choice they would have otherwise never had. Perhaps not the classic Hackers Levy wrote in 1984, Glyn Moody's Rebel Code nevertheless delivers important look at where we are today, and how we got here.

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