December 2005

Name: Eddie Tejeda

Subject: Why is the web the way it is today?

My name is Eddie Tejeda, a recent graduate from Hampshire College (I think you might know it). I am currently writing an article about the influence and the direction the internet could have gone if it were not for the FSF/GNU movement. I currently run a political and technology blog at nailchipper.com/weblog. I am also a freelance developer and avid supporter of the open source movement.

I am emailing many influential people all over the internet to see what they think the web would have looked today if it were not for Richard Stallman's GNU movement. Many ideas of open source (which borrowed ideas from Free Software) have now made their way into other fields such as journalism, education, and encyclopedias with blogs, MIT's OpenCourseWare, and Wikipedia, respectively.

We are seeing the willingness of people to just "give things away," and as a result, we're all benefiting. Now, I wonder whether this is the case because many of the ideas of "openness" came (influenced) from Richard's Stallman's movement or was the internet enough of a catalyst for people to want to eventually "give things away"? Did these ideas carry over from developers to the mainstream as developers became mainstream? Or did this come about simply because the internet existed and was now possible?

I hope you find this topic interesting and take the time to comment on these ideas.

Thanks,

Eddie Tejeda


Hi Eddie,

I do indeed know about Hampshire--my daughter Meara just graduated last year.

I think you're giving way too much credit to the FSF. For example, Larry Wall had never heard of the FSF or the GNU project when he first released Perl as free software. And many of the most important free software programs--Apache, BIND, even the implementation of the TCP/IP protocol that everyone, including Microsoft, based their internet software on--came out of the BSD project, which again, had roots that preceded the FSF and the GNU manifesto. Much of the original Unix development was collaborative, between individuals, universities, and research labs. Not open source by license, but open source by development practice and community dynamics.

Ultimately, free software culture was driven not by ideology but by the fragmented hardware market for Unix. Unlike the PC world, where the existence of a single hardware platform meant that hackers could distribute their work as binary code (freeware), the ONLY way you could distribute Unix software was to send around the source code.

GCC was a more important contribution to the success and spread of this culture than the GPL--it made sure that every Unix system came with a compiler, and was thus a key enabler of meaningful source code distribution.

Richard was one of many fellow travelers who helped to shape the free culture of the software fringes, and eventually, of the internet.

His role was to raise awareness of the importance of the issue of software freedom, but he also introduced some really unnecessary politicization that has also made the acceptance of the values of sharing more difficult. That's why the open source definition, which is more broad-minded, more pragmatic, and less political, was required to redress some of the problems caused by the FSF.

I do think that the hacker culture and free/open source software helped to share the idea of free information sharing on the internet. However, I think they are more accurately characterized as the canaries in the coal mine. Hackers showed us how people naturally act when they are given access to communications.

See my talk at the CFP conference in 2000.

You might want to look at some of the other things I've archived on open source software as well.

Tim O'Reilly

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