Glyn Moody, author of Rebel Code - the story of Linux and the free source revolution - talks exclusively to Penguin.co.uk about the future of Microsoft, Napster and the difference between a ‘hacker’ and a ‘cracker’
Can you explain, for those who aren’t so au fait with technology, why Linux is important?
Glyn Moody is a columnist for Computer Weekly and a regular contributor to The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Economist, among many other newspapers and periodicals.
Linux is important because it gives computer users a choice. For many situations it is possible to use Linux combined with other free software as an alternative to Microsoft Windows. This acts as a brake on the software giant's monopolistic practices, established in the recent US anti-trust court case, and on its power in general.
But aside from these rather negative reasons, Linux is important because it demonstrates that an entirely new way of writing programs, based on a loose confederation of programmers around the world, linked together by the Internet, and working just for the sheer pleasure of creating, is capable of producing complex software that is fully the equal of that from a $200 billion company with tens of thousands of highly-paid employees.
Linux is a very visible success story for Open Source software. Are there other examples?
The most visible - and yet perhaps the most surprising - success story is the Internet. The software that runs the main addressing system is an open source program called BIND, written 20 years ago and just given away. Similarly, the program that routes three-quarters of all email, Sendmail, is available to all at no cost. And nearly two-thirds of all public Web sites run open source software called Apache. Less visible, perhaps, but just as dominant, is the free programming language Perl, which runs many of the world's top e-commerce sites - including Amazon.
Do you think that Linux will ever represent a real challenge to Microsoft?
It already is. When asked a similar question, here's what someone said recently: "I’d put the Linux phenomenon really as threat number one." The speaker was Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates' successor as CEO of Microsoft.
For most people the term ‘hacker’ means someone who breaks into company computer systems and steals secret files, or defaces well-know websites. What do you mean when you talk about a ‘hacker’?
In the early 1970s, the very first computer enthusiasts called themselves "hackers", because they were always "hacking" around, or playing, with hardware and software. Many of today's most gifted programmers see themselves as part of the same tradition, and therefore also refer to themselves as "hackers." By this they mean someone who enjoys exploring computer technology, usually by writing new software.
Unfortunately, another group of less gifted computer users are capable only of destructive rather than creative acts. Although they may call themselves "hackers", they have nothing to do with the true hacker culture, which despises this kind of adolescent activity. Such would-be hackers are more correctly called "crackers", but sloppy media reporting has meant that the distinction is rarely made.
Is there room for intellectual copyright in the Open Source universe?
Copyright is not only possible in the open source world, but necessary. The main license used for free software, the GNU General Public License, requires copyright law to enforce its terms. In other words, free software is not anarchy, as it is sometimes portrayed, but offers instead an alternative legal framework.
As an advocate of open source code, what are your thoughts on content copyright? Will everything eventually be free?
As for software, copyright will remain important for content, but this is a different issue from whether it is freely available. The prologue and first two chapters
of "Rebel Code" are available on this site, but they are copyrighted.
More generally, I don't see everything ending up free: rather I think there will be a pricing spectrum, as for software. Popular, mass-medium materials may well be freely available, because the opportunity of generating revenue in other ways is much greater - through on-screen advertising, for example. Equally, people may be prepared to give away their work to large numbers of people as a marketing exercise, or even simply for kudos. But for specialised content or software it is more likely that users will have to pay, just as they do for niche publications today.
There is a similar ‘ideological’ battle going on in the music industry at the moment following the advent of MP3s and sites like Napster. Was it inevitable that Napster have given in to commercial pressure and signed the deal with Bertelsmann?
It was inevitable that Napster would have to reach an accommodation with a major player like Bertelsmann because of the way its music-sharing service works. Napster requires the use of centralised computers that act as a kind of public directory; these cost money to set up and run, and the more popular Napster became, the more it had to spend on computers, even though it had no income - an untenable situation.
However, there are alternatives to Napster, notably the open source program Gnutella, that do not depend on central directories. As a result, there is no extra cost in running a Gnutella file-sharing network, and so no need to turn to outside funding.
Gnutella is still at a very early stage of its development. In particular, it is not clear whether its decentralised approach will be able to handle 50 million users as Napster can. This is likely to be one of the most interesting areas for open source in the next year - not least because of the huge potential repercussions for the music industry and beyond.