Maddog, Moglen, and Frye: Icons of the Linux community discuss their first twenty years with Linux and its future


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In the afternoon keynotes of the first day of LinuxCon, Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin sat down to talk about the twentieth anniversary of Linux with Jon "Maddog" Hall, Eben Moglen, and Dan Frye, or as Zemlin called them, The Godfather, The Lawyer, and The Suit.

These are the sort of men who need no introduction in the Linux community. Maddog helped Linus Torvalds with his first port, to Digital Equipment Corporation's Alpha platform and is sometimes referred to as the godfather of the community. He's also the actual godfather of Torvalds' children. Moglen is Director-Counsel at the Software Freedom Law Center and has represented free software for many years. Frye is Vice President, Open Systems Development, IBM Systems & Technology Group and responsible for the IBM Linux development team. He co-authored the original IBM corporate strategies for Linux and open source software.

Following are their words about the past twenty years and what they're looking forward to in the next twenty.

When was the first time you heard of Linux?

Maddog: In about November 1993 when I opened a copy of Dr. Dobbs Journal, and there was a complete UNIX operating system for $100 including source code. I said, "Jeez, $100 for a complete system. I just can't not order that!" So I did, but I didn't have a PC to run it on. I got it, which was a thin book and a CD, and because I couldn't run it, I mounted it and looked at the man pages. It looked like a good system, and I stuck it in my file cabinet. Then in May '94, this guy asked me to bring this person from Europe to talk about this thing called Linux.

Moglen: That's what convergence of community is like. In the fall of '93, I was trying to keep PGP from being treated as a munition by the US government. I was working in Virginia and ordered a CD, which contained 0.92 of the kernel, which I had to compile because I had better or worse hardware than Maddog, but not bad enough. Then I put it on the shelf until I got to Harvard Law School the next year, where it was not possible to run the multitasking proprietary DOS operating system I'd been using. It must have been about March of '94 that I finally installed it, and I didn't look back.

Frye: We were late to the party. I didn't hear about Linux until May of '98. I was at a high performance computing workshop doing theoretical designs of petaflop systems. There were three workgroup meetings: a workgroup of the most proprietary technology, a middle-of-the-road system group, and an open system group were talking. When Linux was mentioned, I said, "What?" They got the explanation mostly wrong in terms of the community, but that twas the first time.

When did you know this would be big?

Frye: A short time later I was part of a group that fairly quickly started up the corporate strategy ladder deciding to go to the channel at the end of '98. We had three cases for the potential growth of Linux, and a set of numbers came out that far exceeded our explosive growth case. Everyone went, "This is it." It took us one pass through the corporate hierarchy, and everybody up to the chairman said, "Yes, this is obvious."

Moglen: The irony for me about this is that I was fooling with the kernel before I went to work for Stallman. Richard came to me in the fall of '93 because of something he'd read about what I was doing with Zimmerman and PGP. By the time he and I began to talk seriously about working together, what Linus had done was already clearly how GNU could be finished. It was clear from the time we began that this was the way a free operating system could work because it was the way a free operating system was actually working. I don't think there was any doubt that what I was doing was in order to facilitate this extraordinary combination of forces.

Maddog: We invited Linus to DECUS in New Orleans, which is adult Disneyland. You can get anything you want, and a lot of things you don't want. He gave two talks to groups of about 20-30 people each. I sat there and listened to it. I'd been using open source for a long time. Back in 1973 when I started programming, you didn't have much binary software, because it wasn't worthwhile. I began to teach where we used software from academia, then Bell Labs where we had the source code for UNIX. Then Digital, so I was used to it. But I realized that people using binary software were having problems. I listened to this talk, and when I came back, I got Linus an Alpha system to do the port and made a presentation for my management. The last slide said, "Linux is inevitable." I said, "Nobody is going to be able to stop it. It's going to be very, very big."

Was there a time since your involvement when you thought there was a problem, a tipping point where it could go either way.

Frye: No. No. No. No. You asked was there a point where I ever doubted Linux. Was there a time IBM had hard decisions? Sure. Complex markets. But it's been remarkable. We all told ourselves in '98, '99, 2000, the Gartner Curve will happen to Linux. There will be a tailoff. A time when it doesn't work right or people are confused, but we never had it. It never occurred, and that was 13 years ago.

Moglen: Well, there have been moments it didn't look so good. When we were about to work on GPL 3, I got Stallman an interview with the New York Times, and I was huddling in the back listening on an extension with my fingers crossed, as sometimes happens. They asked him if he ever thought it could get as good as it was. He said, no, from the moment he heard of software patents, he thought we were doomed but that Eben was more optimistic. At the start of the SCO mess, I was worried, not because I thought they had anything or that our friends in industry would back down, but I worried about customers. I spent a lot of time telling nervous general counsels why their directors weren't ridiculous when they wanted to keep using it. I spent a lot of time in 2003 and 2004 refereeing in board rooms, and that felt nervous. There was a real concerted attempt, as there is today, to scare people away from free software, which includes the Linux kernel and disrupts little profit factories. Surviving the first one of that kind was a good lesson in the robustness of our social arrangements, as opposed to our software. Now we are going to get tested on our social relations again.

Maddog: There was a time in the development of the Linux system where people started thinking about companies coming in and making money off of Linux. They said things like, "I don't want to write software for free that other people are going to make money off of." I said no, if you don't allow people to make money, it's going to move like a glacier. If you allow them to make money and make contributions back, it will move forward quickly. What happened, quite frankly, with Microsoft, was they said, "We're going to make an operating system and allow other people to have their hardware." They got the market share. But you look at Apple, who said, "We're only going to allow Apple hardware," they have only 9% of the market.

Linux has leapt from one form of computing to another like no other platform. What do you think is going to define the next 20 years for Linux?

Frye: The fun thing is that what we understood early on was that Linux is an enabler of innovation. As an enabler, it leaps and shows up in unusual places. TiVo? Come on, why? But then, why not? Supercomputers, mainframes, it goes where you don't expect it.

Maddog: I think it's a cross of a lot of things happening at the same time. When I got started in computers, a single transistor would cost you $1.50. The fact that really powerful hardware is now incredibly cheap, that you can do wonderful things with castoff computers, and yet if you don't have access to the source code, you have to start from scratch. And that's a shame. The Internet gives us the tools we need for collaboration. In Spain at CampusParty a couple weeks ago, I met a kid who started his own Linux distro at the age of 12. He and his father are now offering support for it in multiple countries. I have a list of people who have done amazing things at very young ages because nobody told them they couldn't. Nobody said anything except, "Show me the code." I'm not so egotistical to think the next Einstein will come from the United States. They could come from anywhere. With free software we have half a chance of finding them and seeing them and nurturing them along.

Moglen: Linux is twenty years old. The web is less than 7,000 days old. What is about to happen to us in the next phase of what we've begun calling "the internet of things," interconnected devices, Linux is becoming to the internet of things the steel and the coal of the 21st century industrial revolution. What it's going to do to our lives can be imagined only by asking what the web can do when it is 20 years old. We can't even imagine the scale of what this magnificent technology will accomplish. W know it would cost billions of dollars to build it again in the way things have traditionally been built--roughly $10-20 billion. Somewhere between $10 and $20 billion has been spent in the patent market over whether Linux will survive. Parties who have the money it would take to build Linux traditionally are building the munitions to destroy it. We have been preparing ourselves for two decades for this problem. Richard assumed we were doomed. I was optimistic. Now we get to find out who was right. Nobody's going to take away from us what we have made. It belongs to all of us together. But the effort to push us out of the economy is going to be very fierce, and we're going to have to fight together. We'reg going to have to defend our achievements, much as there ought to be no member of the human race who wants to see this ruined. Between now and eight or nine or ten years from now when the patent war finally burns itself out and we see who the survivors are, we're going to be in a tight place. We're going to have to pay taxes, and we're going to have to spend them wisely. We're going to have to waste very little because the armaments on the other side will grow great. Trust me, there will be room for more than "a" lawyer before this is over. It's not innovation or technology or beautiful changes. It's making sure incumbents don't prevent us from doing the great things we can do together. It's a sad story with, I hope, a happy ending.

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2 Comments

shackra's picture

why Eben Moglen use Open Source jargon??? :O
I watch many keynotes of him and never use words like "propietary software" :-/

Thub's picture

I think when he said he was using a "multitasking proprietary DOS operating system" he wasn't referring to MS-DOS, but some OS that was proprietary to the hardware platform. It's not the same Open Source jargon, but a different definition of "proprietary" that's more common outside the FOSS world.