Originally Published: Monday, 2 July 2001 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: opinion_articles/opinion Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Unification: The Free Software Movement Brings it all Together

Linux.com opinion writer Rob Bos delivers an inspiring and thoughtful essay on the wonders of the free software movement. Could it be that free software brings academics, business people and hobbyist together in ways we have never seen before? Ah - yes!

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Computing over the last fifty years has seen three major traditions: computer science, business, and hobbyist.

The first has given us algorithms, theoretical limits, boundaries, barriers to overcome, ideas. Research projects have given us routing, protocols, RFCs, specifications, and brought computing out of military research labs into the general population. Computing as a science is a large part of the push forward in modern computing; it has given us infrastructure, concepts, ideas, and is largely driven by the requirements of individual research projects.

Today, some of the most exciting work in computing continues be done in research institutes and universities; new ways of representing data, better ways to store that data, better algorithms for the manipulation of data - even whole new branches of information theory. Universities, software development labs, and even many commercial organizations fit in this category. These are the people who deal with information as an abstract entity, toy with new ways of doing things, radically different concepts and intense investigations into the science of computing.

The second major tradition of computing has been that group that uses the computer as a tool in order to get specific things done - the people who want to get telephone networks switching properly, who want all point-of-sale terminals talking to a central computer, who want to build a car using a gigantic robotic arm. Practical, business-oriented computing and computing research has given us Unix, commercial software, consumer electronics, mass-produced cheap computers, and form, in no small part, the backbone of our technological society - we could not function today without the large-scale automation and relief of tedious labor that the enabling qualities of these advances have given us. Without this aspect of computing, without this group of people, government and business would have collapsed under bureaucratic load long ago - or simply stayed at the small-scale operations they have historically been, limited by their capacity to shuffle paper. Whether this is a good thing is debatable, but it has certainly changed the world and advanced computing greatly.

The third major tradition of computing, the 'personal' computer, started with the Altair in 1975 and reaches to the present, is the group of tinkerers and hackers who, in their spare time, do what they love in order to create something wonderful: From this, the reality of computing as a tool for every person on the planet, as a device to engender freedom, sprang. These early personal computer users were by and large on their own, toggling in programs byte-by-byte, using soldering irons: as much a valuable tool as any in their arsenal. They did not have huge funds, they were not usually PhDs, they were hobbyists, and did what they loved with the tools that they had available. Throughout the years, they have taken what equipment has been available and done wonderful things with it - the geek coding in the basement to create some radically nifty piece of software destined to change the world is today a cliche.

The three different traditions have followed very different paths with simple relationships; business tended to look at hobbyists and CS people as sources of income and dreamers, respectively - hobbyists have always looked in awe at the huge resources available to businesses and CS, CS tended to sneer at everyone.

Free software has roots in all of these traditions - from the university computer laboratory, from the basement server room, from the hobbyists' computer room. All three of these groups openly mix and cooperate in order to produce useful software, and often succeed - and this unique combination of skill, openness, and interplay of goals, ideas, and drive to make something cool, leads to incredible new heights in software.

In combining these philosophies, free software creates something wonderful - with the raw inquisitive energy of hackers from the personal computer community, it has a spirit of inquisitiveness, of searching, of poking in to every little nook of the system; with the powerful tools, methodology, and infrastructure of computing science, it has discipline and focus; with the direct goals and objectives required by business, it has direct plans and roadmaps. Free software contains within it the unification of three camps that have, until recently, largely been completely isolated from one another - and this unification is, more than any other factor, the single most powerful drive for free software in general and Linux in particular. Free software gives all parties the ability to work on something in common, to modify the software as it suits their needs (and project-maintainer-willing, to be available to everyone else as part of the official distribution) - people with very disparate objectives all have a very direct say in the objectives of a software package.

In free software, computing science meets up to enhance the needs of business, to provide tools and ideas to the hackers; the hackers provide boundless energy, innovation, and the desire to tinker, optimize, create art; businesses provide funding. All of these groups receive direct benefits.

All this from the simple concept that hiding the source code is not an option - small ideas can have big effects.

Rob Bos, rbos@linux.com, is a system administrator and embedded software developer at LinuxMagic Software. He maintains a web page at tunafish.sandwich.net.

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