Linux users who wonder why drag-and-drop doesn't always work between applications may find themselves treated to a lengthy philosophical discourse on the difference between Gnome and KDE -- a difference they may not have known existed.
Linux users who watch the documentary Revolution OS will find themselves treated to a lengthy philosophical discourse on the difference between free software and open source software -- a difference they may also have been unaware of.
The film by J.T.S. Moore is about the growth of the free software movement, and its eventual co-option by the open source movement. I don't think that's what the movie was supposed to be about; it was supposed to be about Linux and its battle about Microsoft. But the movie is quickly hijacked by its participants and turned into a theoretical discussion, in which Linux itself is a mere sideshow.
The combatants are Richard Stallman for free software, and Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens for open source. Much of the movie is after-the-fact interviews with them, as well as other notables: Linus Torvalds, Michael Tiemann from Cygnus, Larry Augustin from VA Linux, Brian Behlendorf from Apache. Rob Malda, aka CmdrTaco of Slashdot, even makes an appearance. But the Stallman vs. Raymond/Perens debate forms the core of the movie.
All three main participants come out looking reasonably good. I think when Microsoft executives see photos of typical open source luminaries, they might feel an urge to give them a hug and a bowl of soup, rather than worry about them taking market share from Microsoft (forgetting that Bill Gates created the same impression at age 24, negotiating the deal to license DOS to IBM). But Stallman and Raymond and Perens are not like that; they have spent decades writing software and thinking about writing software, and the intellectual heft of their arguments reflect that. Stallman, in particular, gets a chance to explain at length his feelings about software and how these led to the Free Software Foundation and the GNU public license, which may be news to viewers who only know about Linux.
Heavy with interviews, the movie lacks the staple of documentaries: scenes with multiple people that are later analyzed individually by each of the participants. The main characters almost never appear together, and when they discuss the rare events at which two or more were present, they contradict each other as often as not. This is an artifact of distributed development: there are not a lot of scenes where they are together because they do not need to be together a lot.
The movie also lacks a villain, a battle of good vs. evil. Nominally Microsoft is the bad guy, but except for Bill Gates' quarter-century-old "Open Letter to Hobbyists" and a snide comment from Bruce Perens about intellectual property, it isn't clear why Microsoft is disliked. Nobody explains why Windows is worse, or Linux better. In fact, the movie demonstrates that GNU and Linux began as alternatives to expensive and proprietary hardware and software from Sun, not from Intel and Microsoft.
Even the open source vs. free software debate is presented from both sides. Since more people have heard of open source than free software, the fact that Stallman gets equal time is in a sense a victory for him over Raymond and Perens. But all three are shown acting both profound and petty, combining smugness with "aw, shucks" modesty, and attempting to claim their rightful credit without being obvious about it.
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An outsider might come away from the movie with the inaccurate impression that open source is the commercialized cousin of free software. Digging a little deeper, he or she might find the Free Software Foundation's web page that attempts to clarify the issue. "While free software by any other name would give you the same freedom, it makes a big difference which name we use: different words convey different ideas. The term 'open source' quickly became associated with a different approach, a different philosophy, different values, and even a different criterion for which licenses are acceptable." However, after kicking the ideas around a bit, the article doesn't come up with any concrete differences. The site also provides a handy chart, but the "free software" and "open source" boxes intersect completely (except for the small space allocated to their names).
The two movements do have different grounding philosophies. Free software is based on four freedoms, open source is based on nine criteria. The freedoms are more general -- they could be applied to almost any creative work -- but in practice, when it comes to software, the four freedoms generate a set of rules very much like the nine criteria. Linux, the standard-bearer for open source, was released under the GPL, a license that came from free software.
While the Free Software Foundation's site devotes significant verbiage to the difference between free software and open source, the Open Source Initiative doesn't talk about free software. Its history begins (somewhat guilelessly) on February 3, 1998, the day the term "open source" was coined (an event whose location is pointed out by Larry Augustin in the movie).
This gives some insight into the difference between the two movements. The Open Source Initiative has a more pragmatic attitude, and I think this rankles the Free Software Foundation. Of course, OSI has to please various people, while the moral compass of the FSF is inseparable from that of Richard Stallman, making it easier for it to stay the true course. In the movie Eric Raymond describes the term "free software" as "lousy marketing," which if it was intended as an insult, I fear will miss the mark. As Stallman puts it, free software is "important for quality of life and the good of society." What worries the FSF about OSI is not so much the nine criteria that exist and whether they conflict with the four freedoms, but whether the tenth criteria would conflict with the fifth freedom.
In computing, with its thousand ways to do the same thing, such arguments are often termed "religious," and the comparison is not inapt. In his book What is a Jew?, Rabbi Morris Kertzer writes, "[Jewish] tradition pictures God as saying, 'It would even be all right if my children forgot me, as long as they keep my commandments.'" That is an open source attitude: who cares what is motivating you to release the source code; just release it. Free software is different. To do free software right, you gotta believe.
In the movie, neither side is completely frank during its interviews. As part of the GNU project, the FSF created every part of a working Unix system except the kernel, a gap that was filled by the Linux kernel. Linux would not exist without the GNU code (particularly the compiler), lending credence to Stallman's claim that the system should be known as "GNU/Linux," but it is disingenuous of Stallman to portray the kernel as just one part of the whole system, on par with a text editor.
Stallman appears annoyed by a lack of purity in the Linux project. Linus Torvalds had the temerity to start writing software without first working out a detailed philosophy that governed all aspects of his life. Furthermore, he used a simpler approach to kernel writing (a monolithic kernel) than what GNU was planning for its Hurd kernel (a microkernel), and more gallingly, got it working sooner and wound up having the name of his kernel be used to refer to the whole thing, a synecdochic slap in the face to Stallman.
Open source has done such a complete job of embracing and extending free software that we are treated to the sight of Richard Stallman receiving an award named after Linus Torvalds, when historical events seem to dictate the other way around as more appropriate. Stallman, to his credit, shows up to accept the award at LinuxWorld, but he cannot resist haranguing the crowd about the GNU/Linux name (a premise that Torvalds elsewhere labels "ridiculous"). Linus gets the last laugh, however, since during Stallman's rant he is being upstaged by Linus' two adorable toddlers, scooting around on the back of the stage.
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Revolution OS does unearth some good background information on a few aspects of open source. We learn about Cygnus and VA Linux, two of the first companies to attempt a business model based on free software. The movie goes into some detail on Netscape's decision to open-source its browser
But Linux itself is rarely seen, missing from its own movie. The product is merely an adjunct, a manifestation of the battle between open source and free software, with both sides claiming moral ownership. When two dogs fight over a bone, you don't see the bone fight. We are never shown anyone using Linux, except for unhappy users at an Installfest. The rise of Linux is chronicled only in occasional titles, superimposed over footage of cars zooming down a road, showing the impressive rise in the numbers of users through the years. Important issues, such as what a distribution is and why there are different ones, are never addressed.
Tiemann and Augustin discuss how Linux can help customers, but they are too polished to make much of an impression amidst the geekosophical debate. Stallman and Raymond and Perens care more about the abstract fight than the market battles, and their passion drives the movie. If they developed their software to scratch an itch, it's clear they gave the interviews for this movie to scratch a different itch, the nagging feeling that someone else was trying to steal their glory.
This leads one to wonder about the movie's target audience. Open source navel gazers will enjoy matching names to faces, but the average non-technical user will probably fail to grasp the significance of most of the issues discussed. They will be left with an entertaining story, peopled by colorful characters who obviously disagree about something they feel passionate about, but the gist of the arguments will likely elude them. An executive watching the movie may also be puzzled; the term "open source" was chosen over "free software" partly to avoid the non-commercial associations that the old name evoked, but watching the internal bickering may cause some to wonder if the software is ready for prime time, or if it is best reserved for zealots willing to accept certain tradeoffs because of the feeling of moral superiority that the software engenders.
The organization that screened the movie in Seattle, the Northwest Film Forum, has two theaters, one seating 70 and one seating 48. They chose to show it in the little theater (called, in fact, the Little Theater), which seemed to me a mistake in tech-savvy Seattle, at a theater just a few miles from the University of Washington campus. Yet, despite being hyped in the Friday "What's Happening" section of the paper, only 19 people showed up for the show on a Saturday night -- mostly Linux users and their tolerant dates, as far as I could tell.
Others may have to wait a while to see the movie. It has been showing at film festivals since last year, and is now starting limited runs in some cities. Luckily, the film is planned for DVD and video release in the second half of 2002.
The filmed part of the movie ends on a positive note, first with LinuxWorld in 1999 coinciding with the Red Hat IPO (featuring Rob Malda commenting on what the unevenly divided influx of money will mean to the Linux community), and then the VA Linux IPO in December 1999, where the stock rose 698% the first day, a record. Check out the NASDAQ stock ticker crawling by on the CNBC footage from that period! Of course in retrospect we know what is coming, and the movie finishes with a couple of intertitles explaining that VA Linux and Red Hat are now trading below $5 a share.
I think this leaves the average viewer a little puzzled. Did Linux peak in 1999? Now that the money that fluxed in to Linux has fluxed out again, is the community closer to its pure roots, moving away from the open source movement and back towards free software? The movie doesn't say, but you get the feeling that somewhere, Richard Stallman is smiling.