Revenge of the Hackers
$Date: 2002/08/02 09:02:15 $
This is version 1.9
Eric S. Raymond
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify
this document under the terms of the Open Publication License,
26 August 2000
31 Aug 1999
This version went into the first printed edition.
The eruption of open-source software into the mainstream in 1998 was
the revenge of the hackers after 20 years of marginalization. I
found myself semi-accidentally cast as chief rabble-rouser and
propagandist. In this essay, I describe the tumultuous year that
followed, focusing on the media stategy and language we used to break
through to the Fortune 500. I finish with a look at where the trend
curves are going.
Revenge of the Hackers
I wrote the first version of A Brief History of
Hackerdom in 1996 as a web resource. I had been
fascinated by hacker culture as a culture for
many years, since long before I edited the first edition of
The New Hacker's Dictionary in 1990. By late
1993, many people (including myself) had come to think of me as the
hacker culture's tribal historian and resident ethnographer. I was
comfortable in that role.
At that time, I had not the faintest idea that my amateur
anthropologizing could itself become a significant catalyst for
change. I think nobody was more surprised than I when that happened.
But the consequences of that surprise are still reverberating through
the hacker culture and the technology and business worlds
In this essay, I'll recapitulate from my personal point of view the
events that immediately led up to the January 1998 ``shot heard 'round
the world'' of the open-source revolution. I'll reflect on the
remarkable distance we've come since. Then I will tentatively offer
some projections into the future.
Beyond Brooks's Law
My first encounter with Linux came in late 1993, via the
pioneering Yggdrasil CD-ROM distribution. By that time, I had already
been involved in the hacker culture for fifteen years. My earliest
experiences had been with the primitive ARPAnet of the late 1970s; I
was even briefly a tourist on the ITS machines. I had already been
writing free software and posting it to Usenet before the Free
Software Foundation was launched in 1984, and was one of the FSF's
first contributors. I had just published the second edition of ``The
New Hacker's Dictionary''. I thought I understood the hacker
culture—and its limitations—pretty well.
As I have written elsewhere, encountering Linux came as a shock. Even
though I had been active in the hacker culture for many years, I still
carried in my head the unexamined assumption that hacker amateurs,
gifted though they might be, could not possibly muster the resources
or skill necessary to produce a usable multitasking operating system.
The HURD developers, after all, had been evidently failing at this for
But where they failed, Linus Torvalds and his community
succeeded. And they did not merely fulfill the minimum requirements
of stability and functioning Unix interfaces. No. They blew right
past that criterion with exuberance and flair, providing hundreds
of megabytes of programs, documents, and other resources. Full suites
of Internet tools, desktop-publishing software, graphics support,
editors, games...you name it.
Seeing this feast of wonderful code spread in front of me as a working
system was a much more powerful experience than merely knowing,
intellectually, that all the bits were probably out there. It was as
though for years I'd been sorting through piles of disconnected car
parts—only to be suddenly confronted with those same parts
assembled into a gleaming red Ferrari, door open, keys swinging from
the lock and engine gently purring with a promise of power...
The hacker tradition I had been observing for two decades seemed
suddenly alive in a vibrant new way. In a sense, I had already been
made part of this community, for several of my personal free-software
projects had been added to the mix. But I wanted to get in
deeper...because every delight I saw also deepened my puzzlement. It
was too good!
The lore of software engineering is dominated by Brooks's Law,
articulated in Fred Brook's classic The Mythical
Man-Month. Brooks predicts that as your number of
programmers N rises, work performed scales as N but complexity and
vulnerability to bugs rises as N2.
N2 tracks the number of communications
paths (and potential code interfaces) between developers' code
Brooks's Law predicts that a project with thousands of
contributors ought to be a flaky, unstable mess. Somehow the Linux
community had beaten the N2 effect and
produced an OS of astonishingly high quality. I was determined to
understand how they did it.
It took me three years of participation and close observation to
develop a theory, and another year to test it experimentally. And then
I sat down and wrote The Cathedral and the
Bazaar to explain what I had seen.
Memes and Mythmaking
What I saw around me was a community that had evolved the most
effective software-development method ever and didn't know
it!. That is, an effective practice had evolved as a set of
customs, transmitted by imitation and example, without the theory or
language to explain why the practice worked.
In retrospect, lacking that theory and that language hampered us in
two ways. First: we couldn't think systematically about how to
improve our own methods. Second: we couldn't explain or sell the
method to anyone else.
At the time, I was thinking about only the first effect. My
sole intention in writing the original paper was to give the hacker
culture an appropriate language to use internally, to explain itself
to itself. So I wrote down what I had seen, framed as a narrative and
with appropriately vivid metaphors to describe the logic that could be
deduced behind the customs.
There was no really fundamental discovery in The
Cathedral and the Bazaar. I did not invent any of the
methods it describes. What was novel was not the facts it described
but those metaphors and the narrative—a simple, powerful story
that encouraged the reader to see the facts in a new way. I was
attempting a bit of memetic engineering on the hacker culture's
I first gave the full paper at Linux Kongress, May 1997 in Bavaria.
The fact that it was received with rapt attention and thunderous
applause by an audience in which there were very few native speakers
of English seemed to confirm that I was onto something. But, as it
turned out, the sheer chance that I was seated next to publisher Tim
O'Reilly at the Thursday night banquet set in motion a more important
train of consequences.
As a long-time admirer of O'Reilly's institutional style, I had
been looking forward to meeting Tim for some years. We had a
wide-ranging conversation (much of it exploring our common interest in
classic science fiction) that led to an invitation for me to deliver
The Cathedral and the Bazaar at Tim's Perl
Conference later in the year.
Once again, the paper was well-received—with cheers and a
standing ovation, in fact. I knew from my email that since Bavaria,
word about The Cathedral and the Bazaar had
spread over the Internet like a fire in dry grass. Many in the
audience had already read it, and my speech was less a revelation of
novelty for them than an opportunity to celebrate the new language and
the consciousness that went with it. That standing ovation was not so
much for my work as for the hacker culture itself—and rightly
Though I didn't know it, my experiment in memetic engineering was
about to light a bigger fire. Some of the people for whom my speech
was genuinely novel were from Netscape Communications, Inc. And
Netscape was in trouble.
Netscape, a pioneering Internet-technology company and Wall Street
highflier, had been targeted for destruction by Microsoft. Microsoft
rightly feared that the open Web standards embodied by Netscape's
browser might lead to an erosion of the Redmond giant's lucrative
monopoly on the PC desktop. All the weight of Microsoft's billions,
and shady tactics that would later trigger an antitrust lawsuit,
were deployed to crush the Netscape browser.
For Netscape, the issue was less browser-related income (never
more than a small fraction of their revenues) than maintaining a safe
space for their much more valuable server business. If Microsoft's
Internet Explorer achieved market dominance, Microsoft would be able
to bend the Web's protocols away from open standards and into
proprietary channels that only Microsoft's
servers would be able to service.
Within Netscape there was intense debate about how to counter the
threat. One of the options proposed early on was to throw the
Netscape browser source open—but it was a hard case to argue
without strong reasons to believe that doing so would prevent
Internet Explorer dominance.
I didn't know it at the time, but The Cathedral and
the Bazaar became a major factor in making that case.
Through the winter of 1997, as I was working on the material for my
next paper, the stage was being set for Netscape to break the rules of
the proprietary game and offer my tribe an unprecedented
The Road to Mountain View
On 22 January 1998 Netscape announced that it would release the
sources of the Netscape client line to the Internet. Shortly after
the news reached me the following day, I learned that CEO Jim
Barksdale was describing my work to national-media reporters as
``fundamental inspiration'' for the decision.
This was the event that commentators in the computer trade press
would later call ``the shot heard 'round the world'—and Barksdale
had cast me as its Thomas Paine, whether I wanted the role or not.
For the first time in the history of the hacker culture, a Fortune 500
darling of Wall Street had bet its future on the belief that
our way was right. And, more specifically, that
my analysis of `our way' was right.
This is a pretty sobering kind of shock to deal with. I had not
been very surprised when The Cathedral and the
Bazaar altered the hacker culture's image of itself; that
was the result I had been trying for, after all. But I was astonished
(to say the least) by the news of its success on the outside. So I
did some very hard thinking in first few hours after word reached me.
About the state of Linux and the hacker community. About Netscape.
And about whether I, personally, had what it would take to make the
It was not difficult to conclude that helping Netscape's gamble
succeed had just become a very high priority for the hacker culture,
and thus for me personally. If Netscape's gamble failed, we hackers
would probably find all the opprobrium of that failure piled on our
heads. We'd be discredited for another decade. And that would be
just too much to take.
By this time I had been in the hacker culture, living through its
various phases, for twenty years. Twenty years of repeatedly watching
brilliant ideas, promising starts, and superior technologies crushed
by slick marketing. Twenty years of watching hackers dream and sweat
and build, too often only to watch the likes of the bad old IBM or the
bad new Microsoft walk away with the real-world prizes. Twenty years
of living in a ghetto—a fairly comfortable ghetto full of
interesting friends, but still one walled in by a vast and intangible
barrier of mainsteam prejudice inscribed ``ONLY FLAKES LIVE HERE''.
The Netscape announcement cracked that barrier, if only for a moment;
the business world had been jolted out of its complacency about what
`hackers' are capable of. But lazy mental habits have huge inertia.
If Netscape failed, or perhaps even if they succeeded, the experiment
might come to be seen as a unique one-off not worth trying to repeat.
And then we'd be back in the same ghetto, walls higher than before.
To prevent that, we needed Netscape to succeed. So I considered what
I had learned about bazaar-mode development, and called up Netscape,
and offered to help with developing their license and in working out
the details of the strategy. In early February I flew to Mountain View
at their request for seven hours of meetings with various groups at
Netscape HQ, and helped them develop the outline of what would become
the Mozilla Public License and the Mozilla organization.
While there, I met with several key people in the Silicon Valley and
national Linux community. While helping Netscape was clearly a
short-term priority, everybody I spoke with had already understood the
need for some longer-term strategy to follow up on the Netscape
release. It was time to develop one.
The Origins of `Open Source'
It was easy to see the outlines of the strategy. We needed to take
the pragmatic arguments I had pioneered in The Cathedral and the
Bazaar, develop them further, and push them hard, in public.
Because Netscape itself had an interest in convincing investors that
its strategy was not crazy, we could count on it to help the
promotion. We also recruited Tim O'Reilly (and through him, O'Reilly &
Associates) very early on.
The real conceptual breakthrough, though, was admitting to ourselves
that what we needed to mount was in effect a marketing
campaign—and that it would require marketing techniques
(spin, image-building, and rebranding) to make it work.
Hence the term `open source', which the first participants in what
would later become the Open Source campaign (and, eventually, the Open
Source Initiative organization) invented at a meeting held in Mountain
View the offices of VA Research on 3 February 1998.
It seemed clear to us in retrospect that the term `free software' had
done our movement tremendous damage over the years. Part of this
stemmed from the fact that the word `free' has two different meanings
in the English language, one suggesting a price of zero and one related
to the idea of liberty. Richard Stallman, whose Free Software
Foundation has long championed the term, says ``Think free speech,
not free beer'' but the ambiguity of the term has nevertheless created
serious problems—especially since most ``free software'' is also
distributed free of charge.
Most of the damage, though, came from something worse—the strong
association of the term `free software' with hostility to intellectual
property rights, communism, and other ideas hardly likely to endear it
to an MIS manager.
It was, and still is, beside the point to argue that the Free
Software Foundation is not hostile to all intellectual property
and that its position is not exactly communistic. We knew that.
What we realized, under the pressure of the Netscape release, was
that FSF's actual position didn't matter. Only the fact that
its evangelism had backfired (associating `free software' with
these negative stereotypes in the minds of the trade press and the
corporate world) actually mattered.
Our success after Netscape would depend on replacing the
negative FSF stereotypes with positive
stereotypes of our own—pragmatic tales, sweet to managers' and
investors' ears, of higher reliability and lower cost and better
In conventional marketing terms, our job was to rebrand the product,
and build its reputation into one the corporate world would hasten to
Linus Torvalds endorsed the idea the day after that first
meeting. We began acting on it within a few days after. Bruce Perens
had the opensource.org domain registered and the first
version of the Open Source
website up within a week. He also suggested that the Debian
Free Software Guidelines become the `Open Source
Definition', and began the process of registering `Open
Source' as a certification mark so that we could legally require
people to use `Open Source' for products conforming to the OSD.
Even the particular tactics needed to push the strategy seemed pretty
clear to me even at this early stage (and were explicitly discussed
at the initial meeting). Key themes:
1. Forget Bottom-Up; Work on Top-Down
One of the things that seemed clearest was that the historical Unix
strategy of bottom-up evangelism (relying on engineers to persuade
their bosses by rational argument) had been a failure. This was naive
and easily trumped by Microsoft. Further, the Netscape breakthrough
didn't happen that way. It happened because a strategic
decision-maker (Jim Barksdale) got the clue and then imposed that vision
on the people below him.
The conclusion was inescapable. Instead of working bottom-up,
we should be evangelizing top-down—making a direct effort to
capture the CEO/CTO/CIO types.
2. Linux is Our Best Demonstration Case
Promoting Linux must be our main thrust. Yes, there are other things
going on in the open-source world, and the campaign will bow
respectfully in their direction—but Linux started with the best
name recognition, the broadest software base, and the largest
developer community. If Linux can't consolidate the breakthrough,
nothing else will, pragmatically speaking, have a prayer.
3. Capture the Fortune 500
There are other market segment that spend more dollars (small
business and home office being the most obvious examples) but those
markets are diffuse and hard to address. The Fortune 500 doesn't
merely have lots of money, it concentrates lots
of money where it's relatively accessible. Therefore, the software
industry largely does what the Fortune 500 business market tells it to
do. And therefore, it is primarily the Fortune 500 we need to
4. Co-opt the Prestige Media that Serve the Fortune 500
The choice to target the Fortune 500 implies that we need to
capture the media that shape the climate of opinion among top-level
decision-makers and investors: very specifically, the New
York Times, the Wall Street Journal,
the Economist, Forbes, and
On this view, co-opting the technical trade press is necessary but not
sufficient; it's important essentially as a pre-condition for storming
Wall Street itself via the elite mainstream media.
5. Educate Hackers in Guerrilla Marketing Tactics
It was also clear that educating the hacker community itself would be
just as important as mainstream outreach. It would be insufficient
to have one or a handful of ambassadors speaking effective language
if, at the grass roots, most hackers were making arguments that didn't
6. Use the Open Source Certification Mark to Keep Things Pure
One of the threats we faced was the possibility that the term
`open source' would be ``embraced and extended'' by Microsoft or other
large vendors, corrupting it and losing our message. It is for this
reason the Bruce Perens and I decided early on to register the term as
a certification mark and tie it to the Open Source Definition (a copy
of the Debian Free Software Guidelines). This would allow us to scare
off potential abusers with the threat of legal action.
It eventually developed that the U.S. Patent and Trademark office
would not issue a trademark for such a descriptive phrase.
Fortunately, by the time we had to write off the effort to formally
trademark "Open Source" a year later, the term had acquired its own
momentum in the press and elsewhere. The sorts of serious abuse we
feared have not (at least, not yet as of November 2000) actually
The Accidental Revolutionary
Planning this kind of strategy was relatively easy. The hard part
(for me, anyway) was accepting what my own role had to be.
One thing I understood from the beginning is that the press almost
completely tunes out abstractions. They won't write about ideas
without larger-than-life personalities fronting them. Everything has
to be story, drama, conflict, sound bites. Otherwise, most reporters
will simply go to sleep—and even if they don't, their editors
Accordingly, I knew somebody with very particular characteristics
would be needed to front the community's response to the Netscape
opportunity. We needed a firebrand, a spin doctor, a propagandist, an
ambassador, an evangelist—somebody who could dance and sing and
shout from the housetops and seduce reporters and huggermug with CEOs
and bang the media machine until its contrary gears ground out the
message: the revolution is here!.
Unlike most hackers, I have the brain chemistry of an extrovert and
had already had extensive experience at dealing with the press.
Looking around me, I couldn't see anyone better qualified to play
evangelist. But I didn't want the job, because I knew it would cost
me my life for many months, maybe for years. My privacy would be
destroyed. I'd probably end up both caricatured as a geek by the
mainstream press and (worse) despised as a sell-out or glory-hog by a
significant fraction of my own tribe. Worse than all the other bad
consequences put together, I probably wouldn't have time to hack any
I had to ask myself: are you fed up enough with watching your
tribe lose to do whatever it takes to win? I
decided the answer was yes—and having so decided, threw myself into
the dirty but necessary job of becoming a public figure and media
I'd learned some basic media chops while editing The
New Hacker's Dictionary. This time I took it much more
seriously and developed an entire theory of media manipulation, which I
then proceeded to apply. The theory centers around the use of what I
call ``attractive dissonance'' to fan an itchy curiosity about the
evangelist, and then exploiting that itch for all it's worth in
promoting the ideas.
This is not the place for a detailed exposition of my theory.
But intelligent readers can probably deduce much of it from the phrase
``optimal level of provocation'' and the fact that my interview
technique involves cheerfully discussing my interests in guns,
anarchism and witchcraft while looking as well-groomed, boyishly
charming, and all-American wholesome as I can possibly manage. The
trick is to sound challengingly weird but convey a reassuring aura of
honesty and simplicity. (Note that to make the trick work, I think
you have to genuinely be like that; faking either
quality has a high risk of exposure and I don't recommend it.)
The combination of the ``open source'' label and deliberate promotion
of myself as an evangelist turned out to have both the good and bad
consequences that I expected. The ten months after the Netscape
announcement featured a steady exponential increase in media coverage of
Linux and the open-source world in general. Throughout this period,
approximately a third of these articles quoted me directly; most of
the other two thirds used me as a background source. At the same
time, a vociferous minority of hackers declared me an evil egotist.
I managed to preserve a sense of humor about both outcomes (though
occasionally with some difficulty).
My plan from the beginning was that, eventually, I would hand off the
evangelist role to some successor, either an individual or
organization. There would come a time when charisma became less
effective than broad-based institutional respectability (and, from my
own point of view, the sooner the better!). I am attempting to
transfer my personal connections and carefully built-up reputation
with the press to the Open Source Initiative, an incorporated
nonprofit formed specifically to manage the Open Source trademark. At
time of writing I am still the president of this organization, but hope and
expect not to remain so indefinitely.
Phases of the Campaign
The open-source campaign began with the Mountain View meeting,
and rapidly collected an informal network of allies over the Internet
(including key people at Netscape and O'Reilly Associates). Where I
write `we' below I'm referring to that network.
From 3 February to around the time of the actual Netscape release on
31 March, our primary concern was convincing the hacker community that
the `open source' label and the arguments that went with it
represented our best shot at persuading the mainstream. As it turned
out, the change was rather easier than we expected. We discovered a
lot of pent-up demand for a message less doctrinaire than the Free
Tim O'Reilly invited twenty-odd leaders of major free software
projects to what came to be called the Free Software Summit on 7
March. When these leaders voted to adopt the term `open source', they
formally ratified a trend that was already clear at the grass roots
among developers. By six weeks after the Mountain View meeting, a
healthy majority of the community was speaking our language.
The publicity following the Free Software Summit introduced the
mainstream press to the term, and also gave notice that Netscape was
not alone in adopting the open-source concept. We'd given a name to a
phenomenon whose impact was already larger than anyone outside the
Internet community had yet realized. Far from being fringe
challengers, open source programs were already market leaders in
providing key elements of the Internet infrastructure. Apache was the
leading web server, with more than 50% market share (now grown to more
than 60%.) Perl was the dominant programming language for the new
breed of web-based applications. Sendmail routes more than 80% of all
Internet email messages. And even the ubiquitous domain name system
(which lets us use names like www.yahoo.com rather than obscure
numeric IP addresses) depends almost entirely on an open-source
program called BIND. As Tim O'Reilly said during the press conference
following the summit, pointing to the assembled programmers and
project leaders: ``These people have created products with dominant
market share using only the power of their ideas and the networked
community of their co-developers.'' What more might be possible if
large companies also adopted the open source methodology?
That was a good start to our `air war', our attempt to change
perceptions through the press. But we still needed to maintain
momentum on the ground. In April, after the Summit and the actual
Netscape release, our main concern shifted to recruiting as many
open-source early adopters as possible. The goal was to make
Netscape's move look less singular—and to buy us insurance in case
Netscape executed poorly and failed its goals.
This was the most worrying time. On the surface, everything seemed to
be coming up roses; Linux was moving technically from strength to
strength, the wider open-source phenomenon was enjoying a spectacular
explosion in trade press coverage, and we were even beginning to get
positive coverage in the mainstream press. Nevertheless, I was
uneasily aware that our success was still fragile. After an initial
flurry of contributions, community participation in Mozilla was badly
slowed down by its requirement for the proprietary Motif toolkit.
None of the big independent software vendors had yet committed to
Linux ports. Netscape was still looking lonely, and its browser still
losing market share to Internet Explorer. Any serious reverse could
lead to a nasty backlash in the press and public opinion.
Our first serious post-Netscape breakthrough came on 7 May when Corel
Computer announced its Linux-based Netwinder network computer. But
that wasn't enough in itself; to sustain the momentum, we needed
commitments not from hungry second-stringers but from industry
leaders. Thus, it was the mid-July announcements by Oracle and
Informix that really closed out this vulnerable phase.
The database outfits joined the Linux party three months earlier than
I expected, but none too soon. We had been wondering how long the
positive buzz could last without major ISV support and feeling
increasingly nervous about where we'd actually find that. After
Oracle and Informix announced Linux ports other ISVs began announcing
Linux support almost as a matter of routine, and even a failure of
Mozilla became survivable.
Mid-July through the beginning of November was a consolidation
phase. It was during this time that we started to see fairly steady
coverage from the financial media I had originally targeted, led off
by articles in The Economist and a cover story in
Forbes. Various hardware and software vendors
sent out feelers to the open-source community and began to work out
strategies for getting advantage from the new model. And internally,
the biggest closed-source vendor of them all was beginning to get
Just how worried became apparent when the
Documents leaked out of Microsoft. These internal strategy
documents recognized the power of the open source model, and outlined
Microsoft's analysis of how to combat it by corrupting the open
protocols on which open source depends and choking off customer
The Halloween Documents were dynamite. They were a ringing
testimonial to the strengths of open-source development from the
company with the most to lose from Linux's success. And they
confirmed a lot of peoples' darkest suspicions about the tactics
Microsoft would consider in order to stop it.
The Halloween Documents attracted massive press coverage in the first
few weeks of November. They created a new surge of interest in the
open-source phenomenon, serendipitously confirming all the points we
had been making for months. And they led directly to a request for me
to confer with a select group of Merrill Lynch's major investors
on the state of the software industry and the prospects for open
source. Wall Street, finally, came to us.
The following six months were a study in increasingly surreal
contrasts. On the one hand, I was getting invited to give talks on
open source to Fortune 100 corporate strategists and technology
investors; for the first time in my life, I got to fly first class and
saw the inside of a stretch limousine. On the other hand, I was doing
guerrilla street theater with grass-roots hackers—as in the
riotously funny Windows Refund Day demonstration of 15 March 1999,
when a band of Bay-area Linux users actually marched on the
Microsoft offices in the glare of full media coverage, demanding
refunds under the terms of the Microsoft End User License for the
unused Windows software that had been bundled with their machines.
I knew I was going to be in town that weekend to speak at a conference
hosted by the Reason Foundation, so I volunteered to be a marshal for
the event. Back in December I'd been featured in a
Star Wars parody plot in the Internet comic strip "User
Friendly". So I joked with the organizers about wearing an Obi-Wan
Kenobi costume at the demonstration.
To my surprise, when I arrived I found the organizers had actually
made a passable Jedi costume—and that's how I found myself leading
a parade that featured cheeky placards and an American flag and
a rather large plastic penguin, booming out "May the Source be with
you!" to delighted reporters. To my further surprise, I was drafted
to make our statement to the press.
I suppose none of us should have really been astonished when the
video made CNBC. The demonstration was a tremendous success.
Microsoft's PR position, still trying to recover from the exposure of
the Halloween Documents, took another body blow. And within weeks,
major PC and laptop manufacturers began announcing that they would
ship machines with no Windows installed and no ``Microsoft tax'' in the
price. Our bit of guerilla theater, it appeared, had struck
The Facts on the Ground
While the Open Source campaign's air war in the media was going
on, key technical and market facts on the ground were also
changing. I'll briefly review some of them here because they combine
interestingly with the trends in press and public perception.
In the eighteen months after the Netscape release, Linux
continued to grow rapidly more capable. The development of solid
symmetric-multiprocessing support and the effective completion of the
64-bit cleanup laid important groundwork for the future.
The roomful of Linux boxes used to render scenes for the Titanic threw
a healthy scare into builders of expensive graphics engines. Then the
Beowulf supercomputer-on-the-cheap project showed that Linux's
Chinese-army sociology could be successfully applied even to
cutting-edge scientific computing.
Nothing dramatic happened to vault Linux's open-source competitors
into the limelight. And proprietary Unixes continued to lose market
share; in fact, by mid-year only NT and Linux were actually gaining
market share in the Fortune 500, and by late fall Linux was gaining
faster (and more at the expense of NT than of other Unixes).
Apache continued to increase its lead in the web-server market.
(By August 1999 Apache and its derivatives would be running
fully 61% of the world's publicly-accessible Web servers.)
In November 1998, Netscape's browser reversed its market-share slide
and began to make gains against Internet Explorer.
In April 1999 the respected computer-market researchers IDG predicted
that Linux would grow twice as fast as all other server operating
systems combined through 2003—and faster than Windows NT. In
May, Kleiner-Perkins (Silicon Valley's leading venture-capital
firm) took a lead position in financing a Linux startup.
About the only negative development was the continuing problems
of the Mozilla project. I have analyzed these elsewhere (in
The Magic Cauldron). They came to a head when
Jamie Zawinski, a Mozilla co-founder and the public face of the
project, resigned a year and a day after the release of the source
code, complaining of mismanagement and lost opportunities.
But it was an indication of the tremendous momentum open source had
acquired by this time that Mozilla's troubles did not noticeably slow
down the pace of adoption. The trade press, remarkably, drew the
right lesson: "Open source," in Jamie's now-famous words, "is [great,
but it's] not magic pixie dust."
In the early part of 1999 a trend began among big independent software
vendors (ISVs) to port their business applications to Linux, following
the lead set earlier by the major database vendors. In late July, the
biggest of them all, Computer Associates, announced that it would be
supporting Linux over much of its product line. And preliminary
results from an August 1999 survey of 2000 IT managers revealed that
49% consider Linux an "important or essential" element of their
enterprise computing strategies. Another survey by IDC described what
it called ``an amazing level of growth'' since 1998, when the market
research couldn't find statistically significant use of Linux; 13% of
the respondents now employ it in business operations.
The year 1999 also saw a wave of wildly successful Linux IPOs by
Red Hat Linux, VA Linux Systems, and other Linux companies. While the
overblown dot-com-like initial valuations investors originally put on
them didn't outlast the big market corrections in March 2000, these
firms established an unmistakable for-profit industry around open
source that continues to be a focus of investor interest.
Into the Future
I have rehearsed recent history here only partly to get it into the
record. More importantly, it sets a background against which we can
understand near-term trends and project some things about the future.
First, safe predictions for the next year:
The open-source developer population will continue to
explode, a growth fueled by ever-cheaper PC hardware and fast Internet
Linux will continue to lead the way, the sheer size of
its developer community overpowering the higher average skill of the
open-source BSD people and the tiny HURD crew.
ISV commitments to support the Linux platform will
increase dramatically; the database-vendor commitments were a turning
The Open Source campaign will continue to build on its
victories and successfully raise awareness at the CEO/CTO/CIO and
investor level. MIS directors will feel increasing pressure to go
with open-source products not from below but from
Stealth deployments of Samba-over-Linux will replace
increasing numbers of NT machines even at shops that have
The market share of proprietary Unixes will continue
to gradually erode. At least one of the weaker competitors (likely
DG-UX or HP-UX) will actually fold. But by the time it happens,
analysts will attribute it to Linux's gains rather than
Microsoft will not have an enterprise-ready operating
system, because Windows 2000 will not ship in a usable form. (At 60
million lines of code and still bloating, its development is out of
I wrote the above predictions in mid-December of 1998. All
are still holding good as of November 2000, two years after
they were written. Only the last one is arguable; Microsoft
managed to ship Windows 2000 by drastically curtailing its feature
list; adoption rates have not been what they hoped.
Extrapolating these trends certainly suggests some slightly
riskier predictions for the medium term (18 to 32 months out).
Support operations for commercial customers of
open-source operating systems will become big business, both feeding
off of and fueling the boom in business use.
(This has already come true in 1999 with the launch of
LinuxCare, and Linux support-service announcements by IBM and HP and
Open-source operating systems (with Linux leading the
way) will capture the ISP and business data-center markets. NT will
be unable to resist this change effectively; the combination of low
cost, open sources, and true 24/7 reliability will prove
The proprietary-Unix sector will almost completely
collapse. Solaris looks like a safe bet to survive on high-end Sun
hardware, but most other players' proprietary Unixes will quickly
become legacy systems.
(In early 2000 SGI's IRIX was dead-ended by official Linux
adoption within SGI itself, and in mid-2000 SCO agreed to be acquired
by Caldera. It now looks probable that a number of Unix hardware
vendors will switch horses to Linux without much fuss, as SGI is
already well into the process of doing.)
Windows 2000 will be either canceled or dead on
arrival. Either way it will turn into a horrendous train wreck, the
worst strategic disaster in Microsoft's history. However, their
marketing spin on this failure will be so deft that it will barely
affect their hold on the consumer desktop within the next two
(In mid-2000, a just-published IDG survey suggested that ``dead
on arrival'' looks more likely all the time, with most large corporate
respondents simply refusing to deploy the initial release and existing
deployments experiencing serious security and stability problems. The
fact that Microsoft itself was cracked twice in late October/early
November of 2000 hardly helped.)
At first glance, these trends look like a recipe for leaving Linux
as the last one standing. But life is not that simple, and Microsoft
derives such immense amounts of money and market clout from the
desktop market that it can't safely be counted out even after the
Windows 2000 train wreck.
But there are also reasons to believe that Microsoft is going to
experience serious problems in 2001 that aren't related to either
Linux or the Department of Justice. As hardware prices drop, the 59%
of Microsoft's revenues that come from selling fixed-price
preinstallation licenses to PC OEMs is under pressure. Those fixed
license costs represent an ever-increasing slice of OEM's gross
margins; at some point, the OEMs are going to have to claw back some
of that last margin from Redmond in order to make any profits at all.
We know where the critical price point is from observing the appliance
and PDA market; it's at about $350 retail. On previous trends, desktop
prices will cross $350 going down well before midyear 2001—and
when that happens, OEMs will have to defect from the Microsoft camp to
Nor will it help Microsoft to respond in the obvious way by
charging a percentage of the system's retail price instead of a fixed
per-unit fee. OEMs can easily fiddle that system by unbundling
expensive outboard components like the monitor—and even if they
didn't, Wall Street would regard such a move as an admmission that
Microsoft had lost control of its future revenues. One way or
another, Microsoft's revenues look likely to crash hard long before
DOJ gets a final ruling.
So at two years out the crystal ball gets a bit cloudy. Which of
several futures we get depends on questions like: will the DOJ
actually succeed in breaking up Microsoft? Might BeOS or OS/2 or Mac
OS/X or some other niche closed-source OS, or some completely new
design, find a way to go open and compete effectively with Linux's
30-year-old base design? At least Y2K fizzled...
These are all fairly imponderable. But there is one such
question that is worth pondering: Will the Linux community actually
deliver a good end-user–friendly GUI interface for the whole
In the 1999 first edition of this book, I said the most likely
scenario for late 2000/early 2001 has Linux in effective control of
servers, data centers, ISPs, and the Internet, while Microsoft
maintains its grip on the desktop. By November 2000 this prediction
had proved out pretty completely except in large corporate data centers,
and there it looks very likely to be fulfilled within months.
Where things go from there depend on whether GNOME, KDE, or some
other Linux-based GUI (and the applications built or rebuilt to use
it) ever get good enough to challenge Microsoft on its home
If this were primarily a technical problem, the outcome would hardly
be in doubt. But it isn't; it's a problem in ergonomic design and
interface psychology, and hackers have historically been poor at these
things. That is, while hackers can be very good at designing
interfaces for other hackers, they tend to be poor at modeling the
thought processes of the other 95% of the population well enough to
write interfaces that J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie will pay
Applications were 1999's problem; it's now clear we'll swing
enough ISVs to get the ones we don't write ourselves. I believe the
problem for 2001 and later is whether we can grow enough to meet (and
exceed!) the interface-design quality standard
set by the Macintosh, combining that with the virtues of the
traditional Unix way.
As of mid-2000, help may be on the way from the inventors of the
Macintosh! Andy Hertzfeld and other members of the original Macintosh
design team have formed a open-source company called Eazel with the
explicit goal of bringing the Macintosh magic to Linux.
We half-joke about `world domination', but the only way we will
get there is by serving the world. That means
J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie; and that
means learning how to think about what we do in a fundamentally new
way, and ruthlessly reducing the user-visible complexity of the
default environment to an absolute minimum.
Computers are tools for human beings. Ultimately, therefore, the
challenges of designing hardware and software must come back to
designing for human beings—all human beings.
This path will be long, and it won't be easy. But I think the hacker
community, in alliance with its new friends in the corporate world,
will prove up to the task. And, as Obi-Wan Kenobi might say, ``the
Source will be with us''.