Issue 11.11 - November 2003
Leader of the Free World
How Linus Torvalds became benevolent dictator of Planet Linux, the biggest collaborative project in history.
By Gary Rivlin
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Torvalds, now full-time at the Open Source Development Lab (right), dons a mask of the Linux mascot Tux.
"Six shots of coffee and I was expecting Linus to really spring into action," he wrote, pretending to be me. "Where would he go next? Fighting evil software hoarders? But no. He got into his car (dammit, if I had a car like that I wouldn't act so sluglike) and drove sedately back home I closed my eyes and dreamt of more exciting assignments."
On one level, Torvalds' life really is filled with quotidian routine. He works from home as a fellow for the Open Source Development Lab, a corporate-funded consortium created to foster improvements to Linux. His commute is a walk down a flight of stairs to an office he shares with Tove, his wife of nine years. It's jammed with Linux-related books, few of which he's read, and looks out onto the narrow walkway between his home and the neighbor's. The early July day he invites me to visit is his first official one as an OSDL employee, but it isn't long after my arrival that he excuses himself to take out the garbage because Tove nags him about the smell. Later, he takes a break to feed a lunch of milk splashed over Cheerios to his three daughters, all younger than 8, while Tove runs errands.
Torvalds, 33, looks like a supply clerk. His wispy brown hair frames preternaturally blue eyes and a soft, open face with an ample nose and heavy jaw. He's almost never without a benign grin, a smile so pearly-white perfect that he could get work in a teeth-bleaching ad. And he's dressed as though ready for a casual morning of tennis: white socks, white shorts, and a slight variation of the same shirt he more or less always wears - a white polo obtained for free at some Linux event.
Yet Torvalds' humble office is the de facto world headquarters for an operating system now used by more than 18 million people around the globe, and this self-described ordinary Joe is admired by legions of fans who cast him as a modern-day warrior courageous enough to challenge the most powerful technology companies in the universe and smart enough to win. It's easy to see why that hyperbolic depiction has taken hold. At 21, wearing a ratty robe in a darkened room in his mother's Helsinki apartment, Torvalds wrote the kernel of an operating system that can now be found inside a boggling array of machines and devices. He posted it on the Internet and invited other programmers to improve it. Since then, tens of thousands of them have, making Linux perhaps the single largest collaborative project in the planet's history. Twelve years on, the operating system is robust enough to run the world's most powerful supercomputers yet sleek and versatile enough to run inside consumer toys like TiVo, as well as television set-top boxes and portable devices such as cell phones and handhelds. But even more impressive than Linux's increasing prevalence in living rooms and pockets is its growth in the market for servers, the centralized computers that power the Internet and corporate networks. It's only a matter of time, concluded Goldman Sachs in a study released earlier this year titled "Fear the Penguin," before Linux displaces Unix as the dominant operating system running the world's largest corporate data centers. It's impossible to measure precisely the spread of software that anyone - from a resident of a third world country to the CTO of a multinational giant - can download for free over the Internet, but Linux has surely proved itself the most revolutionary software undertaking of the past decade.
Linux's mainstream arrival is testament not only to the worth of the code contributed by programmers working out of love rather than pursuit of a paycheck, but to the power of its progenitor, who still gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to any changes. Torvalds acknowledges being "benevolent dictator of Planet Linux," as he calls it, yet the secret to his success is not, apparently, his technological prowess but his disarming personality. Check in with the loyal subjects who have watched Torvalds' rule - a process best accomplished via email - and they'll agree. As Cliff Miller, an early Linux contributor, writes: "He is a great leader, which he may not even realize."
Over the past decade, other free software products have been hailed as critical building blocks of our networked world. About two-thirds of the servers that collectively make up the Internet deliver Web pages and other data through a program called Apache, developed by a band of programmers who receive no direct financial compensation for their work. The programming language Perl, another freebie, has become so indispensable to Web developers that it's been referred to as the duct tape of the Internet. And most of the world's email is routed through Sendmail, yet another exercise in mob authorship. Like Linux, each of these was created by coders abiding by the open source credo: Do what you wish to improve a product, charge for it if you like, but share the underlying source code you added.
These efforts, impressive as they are, haven't matched Linux in terms of reach and acclaim. That's partly because, as an operating system, Linux plays the glamour position in the software world, akin to the quarterback or lead guitar. But hackers have backed other free operating systems, and none have attained the following that Linux enjoys. "This is not due to the variation in technical merit, development style, or licensing scheme," Miller writes to me. "The difference is spelled L-I-N-U-S." People have tried to make Torvalds into what he's not - anti-money, anti-capitalist, anti-Microsoft - so they tend to miss his true strengths. Those who work closely with Torvalds describe him as a steadying force atop an ever burgeoning community populated by more than its share of prickly programmers and zealots. Under his guidance, they manage to crank out software that matches, if not exceeds, the work produced by the salaried armies of Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and other well-financed behemoths.
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Still, for all its recent triumphs, Linux now faces its single greatest threat: a lawsuit that seeks to prove that Linux represents a widespread case of intellectual property theft and to charge its users steep fees as compensation. In March, the SCO Group, a Utah-based company that owns the rights to the Unix operating system, accused IBM of dropping thousands of lines of Unix into Linux. Since then, SCO executives have charged that the presence of its code in Linux raises ownership issues that call into question not only Linux's legality but the very process that makes open source such a vital part of the tech world. Linux is based on donated code: Torvalds and his peers who oversee popular open source projects accept contributions from any and all sources based on the merits of the code alone. They don't have the institutional resources to ensure that a programmer isn't guilty of plagiarism.
"We need to step back and take a look at the open source business model, which doesn't provide [private enterprises like ours] with inherent protections," SCO chief executive Darl McBride charged in August. To pursue its claim against IBM, whose programmers have been some of the most prolific contributors to Linux, SCO has hired David Boies, who represented the government against Microsoft and Gore against Bush before the US Supreme Court.
Legal papers filed by SCO cast Torvalds as a ringleader encouraging his followers to brazenly flout the law, and though the suit wouldn't have a significant financial impact on him (he collects no royalties from his operating system), Linux has come to define his identity. Torvalds never set out to champion an alternative method for creating software, but inadvertently he has, and now he's both proud of that accomplishment and angry that his life's work is under attack. For better or for worse, he has emerged as the poster boy for the open source movement, and SCO has thrown a big fat dirtball at the cause. "I spend a lot more time than any person should have to talking with lawyers and thinking about intellectual property issues," Torvalds says with a sigh.
Torvalds is a work-at-home dad with no formal management training. He confesses to being terribly disorganized. His approach to voicemail is to let messages stack up and then delete them without listening to any. His memory is so lousy that he can't recall whether he was 6 or 8 or 10 when his parents divorced. And he's awfully absentminded: We are heading out the door for lunch when Torvalds suddenly remembers that his wife is out and that if we leave, his kids will be home alone. Then there's his ambivalence about his role as Linux's leader. "I don't have a five-year agricultural plan," he says. "I don't want to dictate: This is how we're all going to march in lockstep." Yet the 12 years he's presided over an unruly group of volunteer programmers is worthy of study by those who teach leadership inside the world's finest MBA programs.
His hold over Linux is based more on loyalty than legalities. He owns the rights to the name and nothing else. Theoretically, someone could appropriate every last line of his OS and rename it Sally. "I can't afford to make too many stupid mistakes," Torvalds says, "because then people watching will say, hey, maybe we can find someone better. I don't have any authority over Linux other than this notion that I know what I'm doing." He jokingly refers to himself as "Linux's hood ornament," and he's anything but an autocrat. His power is based on nothing more than the collective respect of his cohorts.
Almost from the beginning, Torvalds has surrounded himself with a circle of deputies he calls "maintainers." These are programmers whose contributions have impressed him in a particular category - networking, say, or file system management - so that now they contribute code as well as screen the contributions of others that fall into their area of expertise. "Nobody gets declared into any of these positions," explains Alan Cox, who until this summer was responsible for those layers of the operating system that communicate with disk drives. Instead, Torvalds will simply start relying on that person to help him weigh the merits of others' work; suddenly the programmer finds himself occupying an exalted role. Today, Torvalds has a dozen maintainers who help him manage upcoming versions of Linux. According to Cox, Torvalds tends to have a different relationship with each one. Some he's collaborated with for many years and trusts implicitly. Others he reviews more closely because "perhaps he doesn't trust their design decisions or some of their coding," writes Cox in an email. "We all have our weaknesses." That's one of the great advantages of the open source model, Cox adds: constant feedback and peer review.
This geographically dispersed group meets at least once a year to talk about its goals for the operating system. "Linus sets a philosophical direction about how he likes the code to be," says Andrew Morton, who has been working on core components of Linux since 2000. "The rest of us pretty much follow his lead." Torvalds has final say over their decisions, but it's extremely rare for him to overrule any of them.
Earlier this year, Torvalds asked Morton to take over informally as number two. Morton, who for several years ran software development teams inside Nortel Networks, is now overseeing the release of Linux version 2.6, expected by the end of this year. But that arrangement is represented more clearly on an organizational chart than in reality. Some people, it seems, still send potential 2.6 fixes directly to Torvalds - and he'll respond rather than defer to his lieutenant. "Somehow things move ahead fairly well," says Morton.
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In a way, Torvalds is less a ruler (or a hood ornament, for that matter) than an ambassador, roaming his virtual world and exerting his influence to prevent technical fights from devolving into sectarian battles. Take the factions that want him to make toppling Microsoft a priority: Create a version of Linux as simple for novices to use as Windows, they reason, and you loosen Redmond's grip on the PC. "That's the kind of politics you see inside Oracle and Sun," Torvalds says. "Once you start thinking more about where you want to be than about making the best product, you're screwed."
Mike Olson is the CEO of a Massachusetts-based database startup called Sleepycat Software and contributed critical components to Linux as a UC Berkeley grad student. He describes Torvalds as "very, very good - much better than engineers in general - at smoothing out difficulties, building consensus, and building community. He really has only a technical agenda."
Perhaps there's no plainer example of Torvalds' equanimity than his unflappable attitude toward Richard Stallman, the intellectual forefather of the free software movement. A former computer scientist at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, Stallman has been arguing as far back as 1984 that proprietary software is practically a crime against humanity. That's the year he launched a project called GNU with the aim of creating a free operating system that would displace Unix. (GNU is a recursive name that stands for GNU's Not Unix.) He obstinately rejects the term open source despite its now near universal use, preferring free software, the name he coined. And although Torvalds released the kernel of his operating system well before GNU produced a reliable one of its own, Stallman insists Torvalds' work should properly be called GNU/Linux, because early contributors adapted GNU components for Linux - never mind that the Linux core is non-GNU and now approaches 6 million lines of code. (Stallman declined to be interviewed unless this article used his nomenclature throughout.) Torvalds diplomatically declines to say anything about GNU and Stallman: "That's not a debate I want to get involved in."
That's typical Torvalds, according to John "maddog" Hall, who heads a nonprofit advocacy group called Linux International and has been friends with Torvalds since they met at a computer conference in 1994. Hall claims he's seen an angry outburst only once, when a stranger was pestering Torvalds about a technical point while he was drinking a beer with friends. "This is different from some of the other free and open source advocates and project leaders whose anger is legendary," Hall writes in an email.
Torvalds has a good human touch. Hall, who has no children, says he will be forever grateful to his friend for choosing him as godfather to two of Torvalds' daughters.Yet when it comes to weighing the merits of a technology, Torvalds is adept at separating the idea from the person suggesting it. His is a world that works only if the best idea wins; he has no giant marketing budget to compensate for poor technical decisions, no clout in the marketplace to compensate for mediocrity. It's invariably painful when Torvalds rejects someone's contribution. The friends of one programmer told Torvalds their pal had threatened suicide after a feature he had obviously spent a lot of time developing was not included.
"Torvalds makes decisions based on whether he feels a design is clean, of high quality, whether it's going to be easy to service and, very important, whether it's needed by a broad set of users," says Dan Frye, who as director of IBM's Linux technology center oversees a team of more than 300 developers. "He's very good at staying away from anything just to satisfy a single corporate user or any entity's agenda."
"If you're too commercial," Torvalds says, "you end up being too shortsighted. You have a 'this is what we need' mentality, and you blow everything else off. But you want the commercial side, because commercial forces end up listening to different customers and meeting different needs compared to those doing it just for fun."
"I was an ugly child." That's how Torvalds chose to open his 2001 autobiography, Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, written with journalist David Diamond. He describes himself as "a beaverish runt" of a kid and goes out of his way to stress his flaws, as if unaware that the standard practice of the genre is to make oneself sound more grand and important.
Perhaps he inherited his penchant for self-deprecation from his mother. Mikke Torvalds, a journalist with the Finnish News Agency, chose "Linus, schminus" as her subject line in the first email she sent to me. "As Sara [his sister] and I used to say, just give Linus a spare closet with a good computer in it and feed him some dry pasta, and he'll be perfectly happy," Mikke wrote.
In a way, Linus was born to be a revolutionary. His parents were campus radicals at the University of Helsinki in the 1960s. Torvalds' father was a card-carrying Communist who spent a year studying in Moscow when his son was about 5. He served a stint as a minor elected official (he's now a prominent television and radio exec). Other kids teased Linus about his father's politics. "Growing up, I was terribly embarrassed by him," Torvalds says.
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Through the spring and summer of 1991, Torvalds worked on the kernel of the system. He lived in near-isolation, rarely bothering to open the thick black curtains he had hung over his windows to reduce glare. He would have been a total recluse, he recalls, if not for Wednesday-night gatherings at a local pub, where he'd drink beer and talk shop with fellow members of the university's computer club. Finally, on September 17, 1991, he posted a message in a Minix users newsgroup, announcing that a rough cut of his creation could be downloaded for free from a university Internet site. Use Linux if you'd like, he instructed people, but any changes, new features, or improvements you devise must be shared with everyone else at no cost. It's an idea he borrowed from Richard Stallman, who had devised the General Public License, an agreement by which entrepreneurs could charge as much as they liked for a program but had to provide access to its source code. Torvalds opted for a version of the GPL that forbade anyone from making money selling modified versions of Linux.
He bristles when I suggest it can't be coincidence that a man born to socialist firebrands created something many people regard as revolutionary because it's shared gratis with the masses. "It never was, Take this and let us together build a better world," he says. His choices were to either keep this unfinished core of an OS for himself or share it with anyone who wanted it.
"My reasons for putting Linux out there were pretty selfish," he says. "I didn't want the headache of trying to deal with parts of the operating system that I saw as the crap work. I wanted help." Besides, he couldn't fathom collecting money for something he viewed as unfinished work that required the contribution of others.
A few months after he unveiled Linux, Torvalds received an email asking if he would add a compression feature so that Linux would work on systems with limited memory. It was nothing Torvalds would ever use - his system had ample RAM - but he worked on the feature throughout Christmas eve and into Christmas day.
The feature proved to be the add-on that gave his creation a leg up on Minix and other Unix knockoffs. Almost immediately after Torvalds posted the improvement, Linux gained hundreds of users, and he began receiving messages from people offering bug fixes and new features that made the OS increasingly valuable. This early sign of success gave him the confidence to change the licensing agreement so that people could make money selling Linux-based products as long as they continued to share the source code on any features they devised. The move led to the creation of companies such as Red Hat, founded in 1993, adding the energy and drive of entrepreneurs to the mix of those contributing to Linux.
These kinds of strategic decisions proved as key to Linux's success as the technical choices Torvalds made. One complaint about Linux at the time was that it worked only on PCs, so in 1994 Torvalds began seeking new outlets for his operating system, starting with a workstation computer called the Alpha, made by Digital Equipment Corp. Serendipity also played a role in the spread of Linux. Torvalds had nothing to do with the creation of the server software package Apache, but its developers wrote it first for the Linux platform, which gave the operating system entrée into corporations in the mid-1990s. By 1997, tech analysts were conservatively estimating that at least 3 million computers worldwide were running Linux.
With renown came unexpected demands. Torvalds' private life became fodder for discussion and debate. He met Tove, a six-time Finnish karate champ, while teaching an introductory computer course at the University of Helsinki. (She responded to his first homework assignment - each student was to send him an email - by asking him out on a date.) When word spread that the couple was going to have a child, the open source community greeted the news with fear rather than joy. Could Torvalds balance Linux and family, members of newsgroups wondered in emails, especially given the demands of grad school?
The reaction was even more intense when, in 1997, he announced that he was taking a job with Transmeta, a chipmaker in Santa Clara, California. Linux fans feared he'd never be able to remain true to his open source roots in a commercial atmosphere. Worse, the venture was funded in part by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, which fueled sarcastic references to the "evil corporate environment" he was entering. For Torvalds, though, the decision was fairly straightforward. He'd always hated the cold, dark winters in Finland, and this was an opportunity to live in sunny Silicon Valley, the center of the universe to anyone in the computer field. He had been offered jobs at Linux-based businesses like Red Hat, but he was loath to favor one vendor over another. His arrangement with Transmeta, where he wrote software that allowed operating systems to communicate with the company's chips, permitted him to also spend time on Linux. In return, Transmeta would receive the services of a talented engineer who brought with him invaluable media attention - employment as a publicity stunt.
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Journalists had a field day contrasting Torvalds - seemingly so indifferent to wealth that he didn't charge a penny for his product - with Gates, filthy rich with all that monopoly money. Fan sites popped up in dozens of languages. "The easy story line was that I was an idealist, even though that isn't the motivation for Linux," Torvalds says. He didn't exactly help put the kibosh on that narrative when he turned down the $10 million in options that a Linux-related company offered him to sit on its board of directors. He thought he'd compromise his objectivity if he lent his authority to any single company. His reasoning was sound, but was it any wonder the press depicted Torvalds as an otherworldly creature walking the Valley, where lucrative board appointments and IPO shares were treated as an entitlement?
Torvalds' home is spacious - a split-level, five-bedroom spread with a three-car garage and a backyard Jacuzzi housed in a wooden gazebo. The master bedroom affords enviable views of the hills and is so large that it contains both an exercise bike and a treadmill (neither of which, Torvalds confesses, he ever uses). Another room upstairs, outfitted with a pool table, wet bar, and temperature-controlled mini wine cellar, serves as his playpen. The home teems with the Linux mascot, from porcelain penguins in various sizes to partying penguins on a blue hand towel in the guest bathroom. But his favorite toy is a sunburst-yellow Mercedes SLK32 sitting in the garage. Still, it's the rear end of the black Acura SUV next to it that draws my attention. The faithful can be seen up and down Highway 101 in Northern California, driving their 7-year-old Hondas and used Volvos outfitted with bumper stickers that proclaim them Linux rebels. But the gleaming silver license plate frame affixed to Tove's car reads: coffee, chocolate, men: some things are better rich.
Torvalds was hardly wealthy his first few years in the Valley. Dotcom kids were getting rich on inventions barely worth mentioning in the same breath as Linux, yet he was living modestly on his Transmeta salary, his growing family cramped in a duplex. People would send him emails pleading for a handout, assuming he was as flush as he was famous. A man he never met even asked him to deliver the eulogy at his father's funeral. Steve Jobs and Bill Joy were among the tech bigwigs who contacted him out of the blue. He was idolized by fans and at the same time burdened by the practical worries of any Valley-based programmer struggling to make ends meet. His mother recalls him fretting about the eventual cost of college tuition for his children.
His fortunes changed in 1999. Red Hat and VA Linux, both leading purveyors of Linux-based software packages tailored for large enterprises, had granted him stock options with no strings attached, thank-yous from entrepreneurs who hoped to grow rich off his creation. When Red Hat went public that year, Torvalds was suddenly worth $1 million. On the day VA Linux (now VA Software) went public, Torvalds was worth roughly $20 million, though by the time he could sell his shares, they were valued at only a fraction of that.
Torvalds hesitated before buying himself his first expensive bauble, a two-seater BMW convertible. "I was a bit nervous about people's reaction," he confesses. "Are they going to think I've gone over to the dark side?" In the end he decided that the shape and price of the hunk of metal he drove to and from work each day was his own business. Despite counsel to the contrary, Torvalds wisely sold all of his stock and spent almost all of the windfall on his home and his cars, trusting that he'd always be able to earn a good salary as an engineer.
For the moment, Torvalds has the security of his post at the Open Source Development Lab, an organization whose scope and ranks have expanded along with Linux. Created in 2000 by a small consortium of major technology companies, including Intel and Hewlett-Packard, the OSDL aimed to accelerate Linux's adoption by financing well-equipped labs where programmers could test software features built specifically for the corporate world. Today, the organization has more than two dozen employees working in labs in Beaverton, Oregon, and in Yokohama, Japan, and 23 sponsoring companies - some of which contribute as much as $1 million a year.
"We seek to be the center of gravity for Linux development," says Stuart Cohen, who took over as CEO of the lab in April. Working groups staffed by employees of member corporations meet regularly to devise wish lists meant to tailor Linux for use in new areas, such as global telecom networks and high-end servers running the most demanding software applications.
For Torvalds, a well-paying gig as the lab's first full-time research fellow seemed like a dream come true. He'd be able to do what he's always done, but without the Transmeta-related obligations that were vying for his time. Instead, he started the job just as SCO's McBride declared that pretty much anyone using Linux is violating copyright laws and ripping off SCO. "With the US legal system, it's always hard to tell what the hell is going to happen," Torvalds says. "So I can't just dismiss the lawsuit as the complete crapola I think it is."
Near the end of our day together, Torvalds and I head out in his Mercedes to eat at a nearby sushi place, followed by a visit to Starbucks. Behind the wheel, Torvalds is manic and possessed, driving with such a lead foot that even a brief ride leaves me woozy. "The man with the flashy car," says the Starbucks barista who greets Torvalds, "the man with the secret wild alter ego." She brings him a tall double latte without waiting for him to order.
Here we finally talk about what Torvalds describes as the "unpleasantness" surrounding the SCO suit. The smile that graced his face for hours is gone. The man who only 30 minutes ago seemed incapable of a bad mood sits slumped in his chair.
At first, the suit seemed like a narrowly defined contract dispute. SCO, which specializes in software systems for small and medium-size businesses, licenses Unix to larger com- panies like IBM that sell proprietary versions. SCO claims that IBM dumped Unix code into Linux, and that this contribution helped Linux to grow from a home-brewed plaything into an OS reliable enough for IBM to sell Linux-based systems to Fortune 500 companies. A trial isn't scheduled to start until well into 2005.
In the meantime, SCO is raising the stakes. In June, the company amended its suit to include an August 2001 email in which Torvalds admits he abides by a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to patent issues: "I do not look up any patents on principle because (a) it's a horrible waste of time and (b) I don't want to know," he wrote to fellow Linux hackers. Though McBride has insisted he seeks "to work through issues in such a way that we get justice without putting a hole in the head of the penguin," SCO now appears intent on doing just that. In August, McBride announced a pricing plan that his company seems to have plucked straight from city traffic ticket enforcement: Any for-profit entity using Linux must pay SCO a onetime fee of $699 per processor. Failure to do so by October 15 means the price doubles to $1,399. McBride drew an analogy to the music industry's recent decision to target individual users illegally downloading copyrighted songs. "If we have to sue end users to give us relief for our damages," McBride says, "we will." The same month, IBM filed a countersuit, accusing SCO of infringing on several IBM patents and breaching the Linux GPL.
Torvalds is unapologetic about his "don't want to know" email. "As any patent lawyer will tell you, no engineer should ever go looking for a patent." For one thing, he argues, that's a job best left to lawyers; for another, if a competitor can prove a person checked and went ahead anyway, then that engineer would be liable for triple damages. As Torvalds sees it, SCO quoted his email only to score points in the media and cast this as a broader fight over intellectual property. He does, however, regret a crack he made at the end of his email that a hit man would be the easiest solution. "The fact is," he says of the SCO suit, "I don't think in the end this is going to mean a whole lot."
Perhaps, but that assessment is offered by a man who sees every moment spent thinking about legal matters as time away from his fellow citizens of Planet Linux. Torvalds had long ago drained his latte by the time he was fed up talking about SCO. We head out to his car, and any lingering bad feelings seem to fly away as he gets behind the wheel of the Mercedes. The top is down, and the hot Silicon Valley sun glints off his forehead. Dressed all in white, with his paunch pressing against his shirt, he looks like a contented pasha seated on his throne. He is an unusual king, but then, he and his loyal subjects are an equally unusual and amazing lot.
Leader of the Free World
Mitch Kapor brings open source to the masses.
by Dan Gillmor
What everyone wants: a single, easy-to-use app that combines email, calendaring, address book, instant messaging, and file-sharing - and works with any device running any major operating system. Oh, and it should be really cheap, if not free.
How to get it: open source, with a twist. That's the approach of Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Kapor has pledged up to $5 million to establish the Open Source Application Foundation. It's nonprofit open source with paid employees, funded by a philanthropist for the social good. The first undertaking: Chandler, codenamed after the famous mystery writer.
Kapor's project deviates from traditional open source efforts in several ways. Unlike Linux, which relies on an army of volunteer programmers, a team of staff engineers oversees Chandler. Unlike Apache, which runs on a server, Chandler is a desktop app. And unlike Mozilla, a spinoff of an existing product, Chandler is being built from scratch. What's more, unlike Linus Torvalds with Linux, Kapor wants to license Chandler for commercial applications to bring in revenue. But in keeping with open source values, Chandler's staff will shepherd contributions from volunteer coders; the OSAF will distribute Chandler under the General Public License, allowing users to change and share the software.
But why launch a nonprofit in a market dominated by twin titans Microsoft (Outlook) and IBM (Lotus Notes)? Because in the face of this cozy duopoly, email innovation has slowed to a crawl. Foundations can march in where sane investors fear to tread.
With Chandler, Kapor poses a set of provocative questions: Does it take a sugar daddy to bring open source to mainstream consumers? Does Chandler represent a new model not just for open source projects, but for commercial development as well? And can this model produce an elegant, easy-to-use app?
Perhaps, but first Kapor must finish Chandler, and that will take time. In April, after 15 months of work, the OSAF made available a rough draft of Chandler - version 0.1 alpha - to the free-software community. The response: It's not ready for prime time. One of OSAF's chief challenges will be to avoid features of use to engineers but not to average users. Too often, Kapor notes, open source applications are "projects by programmers for programmers," people who "don't require the kinds of user interfaces that mere mortals do."
Dan Gillmor is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.
Contributing editor Gary Rivlin (email@example.com) wrote about Sun Microsystems in Wired 11.07.
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