Originally Published: Tuesday, 18 May 1999 Author: Andrew Leonard
Published to: columnists/Andrew Leonard Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

The Non-profit Motive

You could hear the sound of hackles rising all over the Net, a couple of weeks ago, when Microsoft senior vp Jim Allchin was quoted as saying, in reference to Linux, that "the profit motive will end up ruining and tarnishing the altruism people use to promote this thing."...


You could hear the sound of hackles rising all over the Net, a couple of weeks ago, when Microsoft senior vp Jim Allchin was quoted as saying, in reference to Linux, that "the profit motive will end up ruining and tarnishing the altruism people use to promote this thing."

"Or at least I hope so," Allchin should have added. If profit was all that counted, Microsoft wouldn't be worried. Microsoft understands the rules of that game. You can just imagine Bill Gates thinking -- "gosh, if only these people would stop being so darn altruistic. Then we could stomp 'em flat for sure." Nothing could be better, from Microsoft's point of view, than if Linux distribution vendors, motivated by profit hunger, start squabbling so fiercely, or, more likely, start differentiating their offerings so markedly, that the overall progress of Linux suffers as a result.

Sure, it could happen. That's one reason why Allchin's words had such an irritating quality -- they were a sharp stick stabbed right at a sensitive spot. The bigger free software gets, the more pressure will be exerted on it by corporations sensitive to bottom-line concerns. That is certainly not necessarily a win-win scenario.

But altruism is a not altogether accurate word to employ in describing the motivations that spur free software developers to do their thing. What about all those people "scratching their itch," as Eric Raymond puts it, writing hardware drivers so they can get their own brand new video card to work with Linux. Is that altruistic? What about all those internationally based developers, determined not to be beholden to a rapacious American corporation for their operating system needs? Is that altruism, or plain old prudence?

Perhaps one can describe Richard Stallman as altruistic -- he sincerely believes that proprietary code is immoral, and is doing what he can to live up to his beliefs. And certainly, faith and passion are major motivators for free software developers. But what Allchin is wishfully calling "altruism" is often something a lot more basic. I think many free software believers get their kicks from the simple pleasure of being part of a bonafide community. A community defined not by allegiance to one particular corporation, or worship of the almighty dollar, but by a sense that something amazing can be created through cooperation and collaboration.

That's why I'm here, writing a column for linux.com. It's a tricky business covering the free software world for a for-profit publications like Salon, without feeling, on some level, like a blood-sucking parasite. My magazine and I reap a bottom-line benefit from the readers we attract through our coverage of free software. But what do I do in return? Do I just cower behind the false protection offered by concerns for journalistic "objectivity," or do I get my hands dirty and get involved?

It's all part of reporting the ongoing story, anyway. I started covering free software in the fall of 1997 when it came to my attention that the Apache Web server program was gaining market share at the expense of offerings from Microsoft and Netscape. I thought it was incredibly cool that software written by volunteers could beat out the best that highly paid programmers working for very smart companies could produce. And I wanted to understand how that could happen.

By this point, in mid-1999, I'm convinced that it isn't possible to fully understand how a cooperative process like the free software movement works without actually becoming a part of it, in some small way. Salon once ran a short article about how ecstatic a software developer (and his company) became when he got a patch of his incorporated into the Linux kernel. Respect from his peers -- the reputation game -- was surely part of it. But the satisfaction of having made a contribution to a community whose values he respected also played a role. I'm going to be frank -- I am greedy for that same sense of satisfaction. Hell will freeze over before I learn to code in C, however. So I'll volunteer a few words for linux.com. It's a start.

Altruism, as Jim Allchin suggests, may eventually tarnish. But there are few signs yet that the ties binding the free software community together are weakening. In the free software world, the community may actually be in the driver's seat -- for-profit vendors who transgress against community values may do so at their peril. Or at least that's been the case, so far. What happens next is anyone's guess. But if enough people join in, for whatever reasons, anything is possible.

Andrew Leonard (aleonard@salon.com) is the senior technology correspondent at Salon.com. He is working on a book about free software.

Salon's free software coverage can be found here.