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[the linux storm]

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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