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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Origins and History of the Hackers, 1961-1995 - Linux and the Pragmatist Reaction: 1991-1998

Linux and the Pragmatist Reaction: 1991-1998

Even as the HURD (the GNU kernel) effort was stalling, new possibilities were opening up. In the early 1990s the combination of cheap, powerful PCs with easy Internet access proved a powerful lure for a new generation of young programmers looking for challenges to test their mettle. The user-space toolkit written by the Free Software Foundation suggested a way forward that was free of the high cost of proprietary software development tools. Ideology followed economics rather than leading the charge; some of the newbies signed up with RMS's crusade and adopted the GPL as their banner, and others identified more with the Unix tradition as a whole and joined the anti-GPL camp, but most dismissed the whole dispute as a distraction and just wrote code.

Linus Torvalds neatly straddled the GPL/anti-GPL divide by using the GNU toolkit to surround the Linux kernel he had invented and the GPL's infectious properties to protect it, but rejecting the ideological program that went with RMS's license. Torvalds affirmed that he thought free software better in general but occasionally used proprietary programs. His refusal to be a zealot even in his own cause made him tremendously attractive to the majority of hackers who had been uncomfortable with RMS's rhetoric, but had lacked any focus or convincing spokesperson for their skepticism.

Torvalds's cheerful pragmatism and adept but low-key style catalyzed an astonishing string of victories for the hacker culture in the years 1993–1997, including not merely technical successes but the solid beginnings of a distribution, service, and support industry around the Linux operating system. As a result his prestige and influence skyrocketed. Torvalds became a hero on Internet time; by 1995, he had achieved in just four years the kind of culture-wide eminence that RMS had required fifteen years to earn — and far exceeded Stallman's record at selling “free software” to the outside world. By contrast with Torvalds, RMS's rhetoric began to seem both strident and unsuccessful.

Between 1991 and 1995 Linux went from a proof-of-concept surrounding an 0.1 prototype kernel to an operating system that could compete on features and performance with proprietary Unixes, and beat most of them on important statistics like continuous uptime. In 1995, Linux found its killer app: Apache, the open-source webserver. Like Linux, Apache proved remarkably stable and efficient. Linux machines running Apache quickly became the platform of choice for ISPs worldwide; Apache captured about 60% of websites,[19] handily beating out both of its major proprietary competitors.

The one thing Torvalds did not offer was a new ideology — a new rationale or generative myth of hacking, and a positive discourse to replace RMS's hostility to intellectual property with a program more attractive to people both within and outside the hacker culture. I inadvertently supplied this lack in 1997 as a result of trying to understand why Linux's development had not collapsed in confusion years before. The technical conclusions of my published papers [Raymond01] will be summarized in Chapter19. For this historical sketch, it will be sufficient to note the impact of the first one's central formula: “Given a sufficiently large number of eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.

This observation implied something nobody in the hacker culture had dared to really believe in the preceding quarter-century: that its methods could reliably produce software that was not just more elegant but more reliable and better than our proprietary competitors' code. This consequence, quite unexpectedly, turned out to present exactly the direct challenge to the discourse of “free software” that Torvalds himself had never been interested in mounting. For most hackers and almost all nonhackers, “Free software because it works better” easily trumped “Free software because all software should be free”.

The paper's contrast between ‘cathedral’ (centralized, closed, controlled, secretive) and ‘bazaar’ (decentralized, open, peer-review-intensive) modes of development became a central metaphor in the new thinking. In an important sense this was merely a return to Unix's pre-divestiture roots — it is continuous with McIlroy's 1991 observations about the positive effects of peer pressure on Unix development in the early 1970s and Dennis Ritchie's 1979 reflections on fellowship, cross-fertilized with the early ARPANET's academic tradition of peer review and with its idealism about distributed communities of mind.

In early 1998, the new thinking helped motivate Netscape Communications to release the source code of its Mozilla browser. The press attention surrounding that event took Linux to Wall Street, helped drive the technology-stock boom of 1999–2001, and proved to be a turning point in both the history of the hacker culture and of Unix.

[18] SPACEWAR was not related to Ken Thompson's Space Travel game, other than by the fact that both appealed to science-fiction fans.

[19] Current and historical webserver share figures are available at the monthly Netcraft Web Server Survey.

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The Art of Unix Programming
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