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Source code for the masses

"Freeware" or "free software," once the domain of scientists and techies, has taken center stage of late, though its creators vary on the philosophy behind it.

Throughout the normally staid hallways and labs of their high-technology offices, engineers were abuzz with anticipation that the computer establishment might finally sit up and take notice of a software philosophy that has quietly gained ground for the past two decades.

Once mostly the domain of code warriors, academics, and a handful of companies, the "freeware" model of development suddenly took center stage two weeks ago when Netscape Communications said it would give away the source code of its forthcoming Communicator suite, including one of the most popular software programs ever: the Navigator browser.

"This is a win for Netscape, for the industry, and a step forward for 'software-kind,'" as one Internet software development manager in Silicon Valley put it. "It's going to teach a whole generation of programmers about this idea."

The notion of freeware or free software doesn't mean free in the financial sense, but instead applies to distribution, exchanging code, and innovation. "To understand the concept, you should think of free speech, not free beer," Richard Stallman, one of the pioneers of the movement, writes on his software group's Web site.


GNU Project founder Richard Stallman on the proprietary jungle way of life
The freeware concept, really a religion of sorts, is reflective of the industry's maverick political nature as much as it is a function of technology. Many founders and early users of the Internet have turned to technology to develop their personal philosophies, and this spirit of communal innovation for its own sake has played a significant role in the tremendous growth of Silicon Valley.

During the past two decades, the freeware idea has resulted in numerous software projects, generating names such as Apache, GNU (which stands for the solipsistic "GNU's Not Unix"), and Linux. The freeware philosophy places the responsibility of creating, changing, and debugging complex systems in the hands of complete strangers linked only by the Internet and their love of technology.

What the projects all have in common is openness. Their respective source codes are published not only for all to see, but also to use, manipulate, change, and redistribute--sometimes free of charge, sometimes for a fee--but always with the knowledge that there are few, if any, secrets.

The projects remain mostly under the guidance of technology enthusiasts, but commercial interests have gained a toehold. It is this development that has led to the consternation of some and the applause of others.

Netscape's strategy for incorporating the freeware philosophy into its upcoming release of Communicator will be closely watched on both sides. Its moneymaking server products will remain proprietary, but even a limited free software strategy could help Netscape turn the corner, along with the profile of the freeware movement. (See related coverage)

"Lots of people think it's strange that the commercial companies are making money from the work of the technical people, but everybody gets what he wants out the project," said Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, an eight-year-old Unix-based operating system for PCs.

Linux, Linus's name mixed with Unix, is either available for free as source code on the Internet or for a relatively modest fee--often less than $100--from companies that package it on CD-ROM, document it, make it easy to install, and even add extras such as office applications and server software.

In his corner of a world where religious wars flare every day, Torvalds, who created Linux at the University of Helsinki but now works in the heart of Silicon Valley, is remarkably relaxed about the philosophy of free software. "There are two different types of development and both are needed. It's a marriage made in heaven," he says.

That marriage has pushed the Linux user base to about 5 million, by his estimation, to rival Windows NT, Microsoft's up-and-coming PC-based server operating system. (The Linux vendor Caldera recently issued a spirited challenge to Microsoft on its Web site, saying that its OpenLinux products will deliver a "knock-out punch" to NT this year.) Torvalds may be enthusiastic about the commercialization of freeware, but he's not motivated by it.

"It could easily be a full-time job if I wanted it to be, but I don't want to be financially tied to Linux," he said, explaining that he often takes off several days at a time from his day job to help update the source code on an ongoing basis. "My involvement is free of financial pressures. The only issues I have to take into consideration are the technical ones."

His attitude seems to prevail among the founders of free software.

"I want my stuff to be used. I wrote it to be used," says Larry Wall, the

PERL founder Larry Wall on Netscape's "freeware"
inventor of Perl, a scripting language that started as a Unix tool, then was ported to Macintosh and Windows, and has become a catch-all "glue" for building Web sites and other network-based programs.

"If I make a living off it, that's great--but I come from a culture where you're valued not so much by what you acquire but by what you give away," Wall says. He is employed by high-tech book publisher O'Reilly and Associates.

Ten years after its debut on the Internet, Perl remains freely distributed. But unlike Linux, those who change or extend the source code for Perl are under no obligation to give their changes back to the keepers of the core code base. However, it's a point of pride among most code hackers to contribute their innovations back into what Wall calls the "Perl cultural freeware."

The same is true with two other major freeware projects, the Apache Web server and the FreeBSD operating system, both Unix-based. FreeBSD is Linux's younger cousin and counts an estimated 500,000 users, according to David Greenman, principal architect on the core FreeBSD team.

Apache has proven itself a winner in only three-plus years of existence. Derived from the HTTP server developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (the same university incubator where Netscape's Marc Andreessen worked on Mosaic, the precursor to Navigator), Apache became the No. 1 Web server less than a year after its birth. It now boasts 45 percent of the market share, excluding branded servers that are based on its code.

One of those is Stronghold, an enhanced-security version of Apache developed by C2Net. "Apache has been incredibly helpful in growing the business," says C2Net president Sameer Parekh.

Parekh's priorities: to spread strong cryptography, and maybe make some money along the way. "I'd certainly like to make money and get paid back, but the core goal is to make crypto widely deployed, whether it means giving it away or selling it," he says.

And how does he feel about the "share-and-share-alike" philosophy of freeware? "We're not legally required to share anything with the group, but we feel the moral obligation to do so. Of course, we don't give everything back because then we'd have nothing proprietary to sell our customers."

"Proprietary" is a word that annoys Stallman, whose stated mission is to promote the free exchange of as much source code as possible. While he encourages individuals and companies to make money from free software by building services and other features around it, Stallman abhors the "proprietary jungle" fostered by typical business practices.

His fervor has alienated many other developers. "The FSF [Free Software Foundation] has religious aspects I don't care for," Perl creator Wall says.

Many observers think commercialization is inevitable as companies look for ways to generate more sales.

"The point of most of these [free software-based] companies is to make money out of their own ecological niche," said Stephan Somogyi, principal of technology consulting firm Gyroscope. "The question is how they make it sustainable. Will they have to compete head to head or will they be able to coexist on the basis of differentiation?"  

Go to: Making money with free software