Continuing the series on the history of free, libre, open source software, May 10th’s class reviews the contributions of some of FLOSS’s most famous movers and shakers.

Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds was the original author, and is presently the chief architect and engineer of the Linux kernel.  The Linux project was started in 1991-1992 while Linus was studying at the University of Helsinki. The project started out as a hobby but later became Linus’ Masters thesis. As quoted in Glyn Moody’s book Rebel Code, an early newsgroup posting regarding Linux begins:

“I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) clones. This has been brewing since April, and is starting to get ready.” — Torvalds, as quoted by Moody, pp. 42

On the same topic, a later newsgroup posting reads:

“I can (well, almost) hear you asking yourselves `Why?’. Hurd will be out in a year (or two, or next month, who knows), and I’ve already got minix. This is a program for hackers by a hacker. I’ve enjoyed doing it, and somebody might enjoy looking at it and even modifying it for their own needs.” — Torvalds, as quoted by Moody, pp. 45

In Rebel Code, and elsewhere (e.g., Linus’ Wikipedia Entry), Linus is often described as a pragmatist. The Wikipedia article notes that Linus simply “uses the best tool for the job”, noting that Linus believes the open source model to be the best model for developing software. This pragmatism is evidenced by the fact that the Linux source repository was, for years, hosted using the proprietary BitKeeper revision control system. In regards to the licensing of Linux, the project was not always distributed under the GPL; in the early days, Linus wrote his own (simpler) license with a similar copyleft clause. This original license did not allow any money to be charged for distribution. When distributors complained, Linus revised the licensing to use the GPL. Linus is quoted as saying:

“I wasn’t really a GPL fan. It was too much lawyerese, and it’s a bit too strict in my opinion. (…) on the other hand, I can’t say I’m unhappy (with the license).” –Torvalds, as quoted by Moody, pp. 49

Presently, Linus is working for the Linux Foundation, a not-for-profit consortium which developed independently, and which later hired Linus so that he could work on the Linux kernel as a career (as opposed to a hobby).

  • ASIDE: I am a fan of the FLOSS Weekly podcast. Listen here for an interview with Linus Torvalds.

Richard Matthew Stallman (RMS)

Before writing about Stallman, it is important to note that there is much to say about this individual. As such, I will keep this section brief. I will provide additional details in other sections and postings (as necessary).

In my previous post, I discussed Richard Stallman, and his role as principle founder and visionary of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Simply put, Stallman is a champion for software freedoms, and is generally cast as an individual bound by principle.

In his early programming career, Stallman worked as a programmer in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. At the time, software was freely shared between institutions, practitioners, etc. However, times change. Software became proprietary, and source code became more like trade secretes. Stallman was against this turn of events, and his views against proprietary software were crystallized by an incident when Stallman could not acquire the source code for a printer driver.

Upon leaving MIT, and founding the Free Software Foundation, Stallman set out to develop a free (libre) computing infrastructure. This began with the release of the GNU public license, GNU emacs, the GNU c compile, etc. The most notable missing piece of this free system was an operating system kernel. Work started on the GNU Hurd microkernel, but the Linux kernel was released (and gained much popularity) before Hurd could be completed.

Eric Steven Raymond (EMS)

Eric Raymond is another key player in the FLOSS community. Raymond is perhaps best known for  his essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which describes the mechanisms and ethos of open source software development. He is also known for his role in co-founding the Open Source Initiative.

I must admit that I first became aware of Raymond via. the book The New Hacker’s Dictionary, a print version of the Jargon File which Raymond actively maintains. I was particularly moved by the piece contributed by Ed Nather entitled The Story of Mel, a Real Programmer.

As with Stallman, there is is much to say about Raymond. For now it suffices to say that, when it comes to FLOSS licenses, he is more flexible than Stallman, and often rejects the FSF’s staunch position of software freedoms at all costs. In the blog post A Fan of Freedom: Thoughts on the Biography of RMS, Raymond writes:

“I thought Richard’s anti-propertarian dream was crazy, a nightmare that would lead to starving programmers and no good results. (…) We couldn’t sign on to Richard’s eccentric messianism.”

That being said, Raymond added

“(Richard Stallman’s) artifacts — GCC, Emacs, the GNU Public License — really have changed the world. The processes of open, collaborative development he did so much to invent is triumphing.”

In fact, it is this “open collaborative development” process is which Raymond so champions in support for open source software.