Rebel code-breakers storm the gates

Rebel Code, by Glyn Moody (The Penguin Press, £12.99/21 euros)Linux is alive and well. For all those devotees frustrated at the cult open-source code's painfully slow adoption by the masses, Glyn Moody's magnificent book, Rebel Code, restores faith that its heart still beats strongly. It still believes it can take on the proprietary world and - one day - win.

While Bill Gates is out in front with frequent releases of Windows to meet commercial deadlines, Linux is plodding along making incremental advances through the painstaking work of perfectionist programmers around the world.

Moody's detailed history of Linux and the open-source revolution suggests that Microsoft Corp. could yet suffer slow strangulation from the free system's stealthy advances in every sector - from tiny embedded devices to supercomputers.

His story is one of thousands of programmers (all of them male) devoting their spare time to honing software code - not for personal gain - but for the common weal of computing.

It's a reminder of how a sense of community, the sharing of information and the freedom of ideas can still be core values of the Internet.

That's doubly timely at a moment when the recording industry is doing its best to shut down the music swapping service Napster, and leviathans such as British Telecom and AltaVista are threatening to enforce patents covering hyperlinks and Web searches.

Moody's pantheon of happy software engineers cheerfully giving away their intellectual property goes back as far as Donald Knuth, whose book, The Art of Computer Programming, appeared in 1968. Computer programming was an art, Knuth maintained, because it required skill and ingenuity. And its creations were objects of beauty.

Moody sees this as a prime motivation for those who, in time-honoured geek fashion, have endured days and nights of code-crunching before crawling into a sleeping bag under their desks.

Of the many who suffered for their art, Richard Stallman stands out. Like some ascetic monk in a cell, he slept in his office for 12 years to create the GNU (Gnu's Not Unix) operating system and other free programs that were the building blocks for Linux's creator, Linus Torvalds.

In 1985, Stallman invented the GNU General Public Licence (GPL), "copyleft" as opposed to copyright, which has endured as an alternative to the copyrights, patents and proprietary software that threaten to fragment the Internet. The GPL allows anyone to see and copy the source code of programs, whereas proprietary systems lock out intruders from the inner workings by compiling it in a binary form. Companies like Microsoft could allow others to improve on their source code but view this as giving away the family jewels.

The fact that companies such as IBM are now joining the Linux bandwagon shows that it is beginning to roll at last. As Moody explains, much of the Net already runs on free software and standards - from TCP/IP, BIND and SendMail to the Perl language, Apache server software and the World Wide Web itself. Companies such as Oracle, Hewlett Packard, SAP, Intel and Compaq are now embracing GNU/Linux, and countries such as China are likely to adopt it rather than Windows.

Torvalds, who created Linux in 1991 while a student in Finland, could be Bill Gates' alter ego. And Moody details the huge pressures he now faces as de facto leader of a worldwide movement requiring attention and approval of every new release.

Linux's ultimate victory is far from assured. But in true open-source fashion, Moody can continue to refine this fascinating account of the battle for the freedom of ideas.

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