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When IBM wanted to use the Apache Group's open-source software as the cornerstone of their WebSphere e-commerce package, the lawyers found themselves dealing with a 20-person nonentity. The group has no legal existence, and is defined by little more than Brian Behlendorf's Web site. Even so, the group was able to dictate terms: that the deal remain open-source and non-exclusive. ("Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?" -- Robert Young, CEO of Red Hat Software.) Since the group didn't want any money, IBM wasn't sure how to negotiate the cooperation of these programmers. They finally came up with a valid currency: a hack that IBM programmers had discovered for making Apache server software run faster under Windows NT. It was agreed that IBM would share future hacks as well. IBM gets a tie to more than 50% of the Web server market, and "scored huge coolness points with Internet programmers." This ethic dates back to the early hacker days at MIT, where "It hadn't occurred to us not to cooperate," according to Richard Stallman. It did occur to Bill Gates, who wrote "An Open Letter to Hobbyists" after someone circulated his Basic interpreter for the Altair 8800. "One thing you do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?" Stallman's response was to hack his own versions of commercial programs and give them away, eventually founding the Free Software Foundation.

Programmers don't get rich working on open-source code, but they have a lot of fun and they don't starve. "Good programmers are rare enough that people pay them well," so they can afford to give away much of their time to a sort of Kwakiutl potlatch culture. "The excitement of advancing the technology is what drives hackers." Still, it's possible to make a buck. Eric Allman's Sendmail, Inc. distributes free software but also does custom work for corporations. More than 5K programmers downloaded, tested, and improved a recent beta release, for free. The year-old company has just raised $6M in its second round of financing. Microsoft is also benefiting, through its $400M purchase of the Hotmail free email service that runs 9.5M accounts on Apache servers.

Open-source software is "an intellectual Olympics, where some of the world's top engineering minds compete -- not for venture capital, but for impressing their peers." After Netscape published its browser code, outsiders contributed enough improvements that a new version was ready in less than a month. The Mozilla Crypto Group at Cryptsoft (Brisbane) won international recognition for their cryptographic add-in, contributed within hours of the source code's availability. This parallels the development of Linux, which has reached about 7M users since Linus Torvalds' 1991 version. New development and features for the operating system are increasing, with releases posted at least monthly. One use, at LANL, linked 68 PCs to form a $152K supercomputer for simulating atomic shock waves -- about 10% of the cost of a commercial machine. (It's the 315th fastest computer in the world, at 19B calculations/second, and has run for over three months without rebooting.) Similarly, Linux has been used to run four of Intel's new Xeon processors.

If you run a Web search, you'll find about three times as many references to Torvalds as to Scott McNealy or Larry Ellison. (Torvalds even beats out Tom Cruise.) Other open-source successes include Eric Allman's sendmail, which sends out about 80% of all email, and Larry Wall's Perl language. Wall says "To have launched something that becomes bigger than yourself ... it's overwhelming." [Josh McHugh, Forbes. , tw.bbs.comp.linux, 03Sep98.]

-- Ken