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8 May 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

A line on Linux
Is Linux the heir to communist revolution - or the bastard son of Geoffrey from Rainbow?

by Fiona Harvey

For most of its 10-year career, Linux was a well-kept secret. Unfortunately, it didn't stay that way.

Linux is a computer operating system, just like Microsoft's Windows or Apple's Mac. The software emerged from the shadows at the height of the technology boom and quickly became every sociologist's darling. It has been hailed as everything from the heir to communist parties of old to an inspiration for anti-globalisation protesters.

The reason? Linux is free.

Created by a Finnish geek called Linus Torvalds and nurtured by a ragtag army of programmers connected by the internet, Linux has never received a penny of venture capital, nor an inch of advertising, and yet boasts several million users around the world.

The people who make the software do so for the sheer joy of it, with no financial reward. These non-capitalists have scared the willies out of Microsoft, which sees its Windows monopoly threatened by a competitor that can undercut its prices to the max.

People liked Linux for its underdog and underground status. Coming from nowhere to challenge Microsoft's dominance, the operating system seemed to embody both the anarchic spirit of the internet and blow a raspberry to globalisation by sidelining capitalism in favour of a new cooperative movement. Microsoft itself clumsily added to the Linux myth when its executives implied Linux was un-American. The whiff of McCarthyism only encouraged free-thinking netheads.

That so many people should donate so much time to making something they received no money for - that they should dedicate their work to 'the community' when they could have done the same thing in high-flying jobs at software companies - seemed to some a miraculous return to altruism.

That Torvalds should resist the temptation to cash in on his creation with an initial public offering (IPO) when other people were taking millions from naive investors with schemes to sell pet food and groceries on the internet made him look positively saintly. Linux could have raised billions on the public markets during the boom, as analysts slavered over their spreadsheets. But Torvalds kept his day job and laboured on Linux at night out of love.

As anti-capitalist protesters swarmed over police lines and Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, preached the downfall of consumer brands, against a backdrop of techno frenzy on the world's stock markets, Linux seemed to capture the spirit of the turn of the century.

Technologists liked Linux. They installed it surreptitiously in corporate networks when the grown-ups weren't looking. By 2000, analysts reckoned perhaps half of the world's biggest companies were running Linux somewhere in their organisations, introduced by rogue engineers. All of these installations that could otherwise have been using Microsoft Windows. Anti-capitalist protesters don't seem to have stopped capitalism, but Linux has succeeded where they failed - stealing some market share from Microsoft and making the free software model a viable way of creating new software.

For all their 'underground' status, Linux people are actually snobs
Hold that PhD a minute, though. Linux is not a new political philosophy that is going to destroy capitalism. It is a computer operating system. That's all. Most people who eagerly coopt the Linux pattern of development to their own revolutionary fervour have no idea what a computer operating system even is.

Which is convenient, as computer operating systems are inherently dull. Essentially, an operating system is to a computer what a teacher is to a class of primary schoolchildren. The children (software applications) all want to get as much as they can out of the toybox (the computer hardware). Left to their own devices, they'll tear each other apart until they get their way. The teacher (operating system) keeps them in check and determines who will get their hands on what in an orderly fashion.

Far from being the spiritual godchild to Trotsky, Linux is more like the bastard son of Geoffrey out of Rainbow - and about as attractive.

The real problem with Linux is that it is quite, quite unusable. Unless you have a higher degree in computer science, forget it. Do you know whether you should run Yellow Dog or WINE on an Intel processor? Do you want to?

And the reason it is so impossible to use is that the people who write Linux don't have to care about whether ordinary Joes can use it. They write only for each other, trying to gain propellerhead kudos with their new 'updates to the kernel' or twiddles to PostgreSQL. If you can't keep up, you're not worthy to use Linux.

Really, for all their insistence on the openness of Linux, for all their revelling in their underground status, these Linux people are actually a bunch of snobs. They don't want you to understand the secret language that makes them feel special. They want to make it as hard as they can to join their gang. Read some of the noticeboards on the internet, with their stinging opprobrium for those unfortunates who haven't quite grasped why, when they'd FTPd the RedHat directory from the ACM server to another local server and installed it through HTTP, the FTP installs didn't work. Stupid!

Far from bringing openness and cooperation to the world of IT, Linux enthusiasts want to keep it as closed as possible - while collecting lavish praise from half-baked anti-capitalists - so they can carry on feeling self-important. After all, if these geeks could write real software, they'd be working for a proper company.

Like Microsoft.

Fiona Harvey is a technology correspondent at the Financial Times. This article first appeared in the Financial Times on 13 April 2002


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