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22 July 2009, 09:00

Hams, hackers, hobbyists and model railways

Exploring the roots of the free software movement

by Richard Hillesley

Hams, hackers, hobbyists and model railways

Back in 2003, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, dismissed GNU/Linux as a "great environment for the hobbyist" but not for the enterprise. The relative success of Linux on Sun's chosen ground, and the subsequent decline in the fortunes of Sun have proved McNealy's assessment to be wrong, but Linux undeniably has its roots and inspiration among hackers and hobbyists.

A hobby is "an activity or interest pursued outside one's regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure". A hack is "a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfil some constructive goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement." The early Linux kernel developers called themselves hackers and for the most part did their real work at home while holding down jobs for the hobby's sake. Contributing to the kernel gave them intellectual opportunities and rewards which might not otherwise be available.

Linus Torvalds didn't leave his job at Transmeta to devote himself to full time work on the Linux kernel until 2003, but by then the Linux kernel could claim to have had more collaborators than any comparable project. The fact that kernel development was a hobby rather than a job, with a return that was emotional rather than financial, can be seen as a virtue rather than a hindrance to its eventual success.

Access to computers should be unlimited and total

The Linux developers of the early 90s had grown up in the age of the ZX80 and the BBC micro, Acorns and Apricots, for which the code was often visible, and computing was an educational process. Jeremy Allison, the Samba developer, gives this as an argument for free software. "I want anyone in the world to have the same opportunities that I had when I was growing up", he says. "The early eighties was a period of intense creativity in the computer industry in Britain."

Sinclair QL
Zoom Sinclair QL
Source: Photo by EWX CCASA 2.5
"I had a Sinclair QL, which was a 32-bit machine, even though it had an 8-bit bus." The source code of the operating system, QDOS, was included, perfectly legally. "The assembler source, the commented source, you could buy and look at, and take apart and understand. It was burnt into ROM, but you could modify it - there was a company that had disassembled it for me, legally - and then along came the IBM PC and Microsoft, and crushed all the creativity out of it, just ground over it with a tank tread. So the kids growing up these days don't know any of that stuff. They don't know the basics of how the thing works. They've got black boxes that rattle because they're broken, and they can't look inside. You can't learn from that."

For those who spent their childhood or adolescence delving into the home computers of the late seventies and early eighties playing with software was a learning experience, and something to be shared. Linux could be said to have grown out of this ethos as much as it grew out of the free software movement or the early 90s culture of Usenet where "if you wrote something neat you posted it to Usenet" and the only proviso that came with the software was that "if the software breaks you get to keep both pieces."

Just as important to the early development of Linux was that it was fun, or as Linus Torvalds expressed it in his posting of 25 August 1991 to comp.os.minix announcing the arrival of the OS he had intended to call Freax, "just a hobby, won't be big and professional like GNU."

The gradual change away from the perception of software as a tool to be understood and tinkered with, to allow users a better understanding of the machines that they had paid for, has often been dated, rightly or wrongly, to the famous Open Letter to Hobbyists written by Bill Gates, "General Partner, Micro-Soft", on February 3, 1976, in which Gates declared: "As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?"

Gates' complaint was against the hobbyist owners of home computers who had developed a culture of sharing the software they used to program their computers, and asked forlornly: "Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free?" A question that has been answered many times over by free software developers.

Next: Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!

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