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The Mountain comes to Mohammad

August 30, 2010 by admin

There was this series of events that happened in Open Source community history that I have always personally given the title "The Mountain comes to Mohammad." The time was around 1999-2000, I don't know. It is late and I will do this from memory and without my usual links to sources. Google wasn't more than a year or two old then. It was still a Linux specific search engine in those days. Now I understand it is powered by something like a million Linux servers. Anyway, it was at a time went Linux was just starting to break out into the larger computing world and that meant dealing with corporations. Linux and Suits was the term we used. Intel was one of the first ones to come courting. Intel's problem was that it's hardware was advancing but the product of it's main software partner, Microsoft, wasn't. Intel was starting to build 64-bit CPU's but Microsoft was still struggling to build a 64-bit OS that worked. And over here was 64 bit Linux, already humming along on the DEC Alpha. So Intel came around with free developer systems and money, maybe for the first time, a lot of serious money for the Linux community. And as you can imagine, there were a lot of debates in the Linux community.

Some wanted to have nothing to do with the corporations. Some wanted to keep Linux pure. Some wanted to keep Linux a small user held OS. Some thought we were creating the best software in the world, free software, and demanded, in the words of Linus Torvalds "Total world domination." I was in that camp.

Anyway there came a time when the I2C commission or panel or whatever was forming up to determine the next new industry standard high speed interfaces for computers. Intel wanted Linux to have a seat at the table. All the usual players had a seat at the table: Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, AMD, Compaq, HP, etc. Problem was that this commission was to operate in the usual proprietary way: NDA's, closed meetings etc., and the Open Source community don't play that. At first there was a stand-off, and a lot of discussion, what should we do? In the end the Linux community held firm to our principles and the commission changed how it operated. Intel, IBM, Microsoft, all of them. The Mountain had come to Mohammad.

We don't normally think of giant computer corporations like Intel, IBM, HP and Dell as being among the oppressed, but in their relationship to Microsoft, they were. For example there was the time that Dell started timidly selling Linux laptops and Microsoft made them stop. So as Linux started to reveal itself as a viable alternative to Microsoft, they were all on board in a hurry. They sold hardware so free software that works was the cat's meow. Getting in tune with the open source way of doing things took some struggle.

There have been a lot of such struggles and changes in the now almost 20 year journey of Linux. The name itself came about because Linus Torvalds, a Finnish grad student had developed the seeds of a kernel to work with the free GNU software that Richard M. Stallman and others, mainly around MIT, had developed. He posted the source code on the Internet for comment. He asked a friend to post it on his ftp server in a folder named FreeX, his friend didn't like that name and changed it to Linux. Anyway Linux was off and running. The year was 1991.

Open Source was a term created by Eric Raymond. That was in the heady period after he had written the free software manifesto The Cathedral and the Bazaar and some Microsoft engineer had leaked the Halloween Documents [ I'll try to come back and add links later]. The Linux community had pretty much adopted the Gandi quote:
First they ignore you,
then they ridicule you,
then they fight you,
then you win.

Linux Hardware Solutions even put it on a popular T-shirt. The Halloween Documents formally marked the transition to the "Then they fight you" phase.

The idea was that the term we had used up until then "free software" was beyond the understanding business. Some of us wanted to grow free software beyond its cult following and present a direct challenge to Microsoft for world domination and that meant dealing with business. Open Source was conceived of as a business friendly way to refer to free software. Free as in beer, and Free as in speech, as we are fond of saying.

There were a lot of debates and struggles in that period, in fighting and back biting. As one who had come out of the political left, I couldn't help but notice the similarities. Linux Expo 1998. Google made it's debut to the Linux community. At the time it was still a couple of guys in a dorm room with some Linux computers. The big news was that Red Hat Software had just released the first multi-language Linux distribution and the mystery eighth language turned out to be 'Redneck.' Those good old boys from North Carolina knew how to make a joke.

The biggest ethical and technical problem Linux faced in those days was how to deal with all these computer hardware companies and their closed source drivers. The biggest barrier to growth Linux faced was that it was very limited in the hardware it supported. While Linux developers became very good at figuring out how things worked and writing open source drivers for them, that took time and reverse engineering didn't alway produce the best results. As Linux grew in importance, more and more of the hardware companies were willing to make software available to use their stuff with Linux. Problem was, they often weren't willing to give up their secrets. They weren't willing to write open source drivers for their products.

The debate raged in the free software community. Were we willing to compromise with these hardware vendors? Could we find away that they could keep their secrets and still work with Linux? In the end it was decided that we could allow some proprietary code to work with Linux, to 'taint' the the kernel, as it is referred to technically, so that we could play with Nvidia, ATI, Logictech and all the rest.

I am giving you this little slice of history in the hopes that it will help you see the Google Verizon deal from my perspective, Most people see two large companies getting together to screw the rest of us. With my knowledge of open source history, I see Google doing what we have always done, joining with a willing partner from corporate America and making a compromise that moved the ball a little further in our direction. I haven't aways agreed with the compromise but that doesn't make it evil.

I think Google operated in good faith in securing Verizon's support for net neutrality. I think some very sophisticated people have used Google's political and PR naivety to make it seem otherwise. They knew that in the current, and justified, anti-corporate atmosphere, that it would be readily believed if they announced that Google and Verizon were up to no good. Well, we know that Verizon is up to no good. After that the DailyKos, Huffington Post, Democracy Now and Countdown were off and running. That was before the duet even issued a press release. By then it really didn't matter what the proposal was. Nobody was listening.

The end result is that the one corporate player that has fought for network neutrality consistently and for a long time, has been neutralized.


Here is a recap of my other DKos dairies on this subject:
Keith Olbermann's Deception
Court rules -> Google Must Be Evil & Maximize Profits
EFF on the Google\Verizon Net Neutrality Proposal
Google-Verizon: What is the Free Press Agenda?
End of the Internet As We Know It!
Free Press would make this Illegal!
Google Verizon Announce Terms of Deal

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