Subject: Free Software and the capitalist market
From: Craig Brozefsky <>
Date: 07 May 2000 21:45:49 -0700

"Stephen J. Turnbull" <> writes:

> As for "not on topic", suggestions that bear on a fundamental change
> in business environment presumably are on topic....

I agree, and submit the following article which is available at:

[World Socialist Web Site]
                    WSWS : News & Analysis : The Internet & Computerization

SITE SEARCH         The Microsoft law suit, software development and the
                    capitalist market
                    By Mike Ingram
ON THE WSWS         2 May 2000
Editorial Board
New Today           Use this version to print
News & Analysis
Workers Struggles   The US government proposal to break up Microsoft,
Arts Review         dividing its operating system (Windows, NT etc.) from
History             the Office suite (Word, Excel etc.), raises fundamental
Science             questions concerning the development of computer
Polemics            software and its relationship to the capitalist market.
Correspondence      Microsoft presently controls over 80 percent of the
Archive             operating system market and 90 percent of the market in
About WSWS          business applications. The company denies having acted
Donate to WSWS      anti-competitively, arguing that Microsoft's dominance
About the ICFI      of the software market has led to both standardisation
Help                and relatively low-cost software for the consumer.
Books Online
                    Microsoft's competitors such as Netscape, Sun
OTHER               Microsystems and others claim that in blocking
LANGUAGES           competition, Microsoft effectively stifles innovation.
German              Both sides assert that the market is the source of
French              technical innovation. How does this latter claim
Spanish             measure up when viewed against the current situation in
Serbo-Croatian      the computer software market?
Tamil               At the very least it can be said that Microsoft's
Sinhala-[Image]     unrivalled dominance of the market leads to the release
Indonesian          of software that is less than perfect. A recent example
                    is the company's new flagship product, Windows 2000. It
LEAFLETS            is reported that the new operating system contains over
Download our        60,000 bugs. This averages out to 12 bugs for each of
statements          the 5,000 programmers who worked on the package.

HIGHLIGHTS          Microsoft Windows, in all its flavours (3.1, 95, 98,
The Microsoft law   2000 and NT), is not so much the operating system (OS)
suit, software      of choice. Rather, it is perceived to be the only game
development and     in town. Few who have used an Apple Macintosh computer,
the capitalist      for instance, would argue that the Microsoft OS is
market              superior. The problem is that Apple Mac users make up
                    fewer than 10 percent of computer users, and these are
Outrage and         to be found mainly in the fields of education and the
hypocrisy from      graphic arts. The small user base leads to a dearth of
right wing, media   available applications and expensive hardware.
Rescue of Elian
Gonzalez            From the standpoint of the capitalist market, it can be
intensifies         argued that Microsoft boss Bill Gates has done nothing
political crisis    other than behave as a good capitalist should. He has
in US               used the dominant market share established by the
                    Windows operating system to make advances into Internet
Military debacle    technology, integrating the web browser into the
at                  operating system and signing deals with hardware
Elephant Pass set   manufacturers to bundle Microsoft products rather than
to trigger          those of competitors. There are no indications that
political           Microsoft's competitors would behave any differently if
crisis in Sri       the situation were reversed.
                    The problem with much of the commentary surrounding the
Wall Street's       Microsoft case is that it takes the present forms of
crisis              software development and distribution as givens. In
and the             much the same way as the capitalist market is
shattering          worshipped as the only possible vehicle for the
of illusions        organisation of economic life, so too the development
                    of proprietary software[1] has been presented as the
                    only possible variant.

                    Even more significant than any action finally decided
                    on by the courts is what the Microsoft case says about
                    the relationship between the market and technical
                    innovation. From this standpoint, an interesting
                    footnote to the Microsoft case has been the increasing
                    attention being paid to various open source software[2]
                    developments, and the Linux operating system in

                    Most commercial software is distributed only in machine
                    code-ones and zeroes understood only by the computer
                    hardware. By contrast, open-source programs always
                    include the source code, written in a programming
                    language such as C++ or Java, which any programmer can

                    Programmers are free to change the code in order to fix
                    bugs, or even modify it and incorporate it into new
                    programs. Different licenses give varying amounts of
                    freedom as to what can and cannot be done with open
                    source software. While some licenses allow projects to
                    be incorporated into proprietary systems that are not
                    then released as open source, the GNU[3] Project
                    prohibits this, insisting that any software that
                    incorporates parts of open source applications must be
                    released under the same license with full source code
                    made available.

                           Increased interest in open-source software

                    In the wake of the spectacular fall in the share values
                    of so-called companies, articles have begun to
                    appear in the financial and technology press drawing
                    attention to the existence of open-source software
                    development projects.

                    For example, the New York Times of April 20 ran an
                    article in its business section which said, "When
                    technology stocks took their sharp tumble last week,
                    many companies appeared to lose one of their most
                    important assets-the ability to lure talented employees
                    with options. To attract and hold the best, you have to
                    offer the chance to strike it rich."

                    The Times then asks, "Or do you? What are we to think
                    when the best of the best-the elite programmers that
                    industry wisdom deems 100 times more productive than
                    the typical competent coder-donate their precious time
                    to develop software anyone can use without charge?"

                    Unable to comprehend anyone doing anything without
                    personal financial gain, the Times article argues that
                    the motivation of the programmers involved is name
                    recognition. "Contributing to open-source projects can
                    enhance a programmer's career prospects," the paper

                    The Times continues: "The most striking example of this
                    is Mr. Torvalds, who was a graduate student in Finland
                    when he released Linux and is now a highly paid
                    executive at a Silicon Valley start-up."

                    Linux is a freely distributed operating system that has
                    been around since 1991. It now receives regular press
                    coverage as a result of commercial distribution
                    companies such as Red Hat being floated on the stock
                    markets. With the development of "windows like"
                    graphical front ends such as KDE and Gnome, Linux has
                    grown in popularity among business and home users

                    International Data Corporation estimates that Linux has
                    anywhere from 7 to 21 million users world-wide, and a
                    200 percent annual growth rate. Observers believe it
                    represents a leading potential challenger to Microsoft
                    Windows in the personal computer operating systems
                    market. Some commentators believe that part of the
                    government's reasoning for breaking up Microsoft is
                    that a new company responsible for the Office
                    applications would develop a version for Linux, thus
                    increasing competition in the sphere of the operating
                    system itself.

                        A brief review of computer software development

                    Press coverage of Linux and open-source software
                    projects in general is invariably tainted with an air
                    of astonishment, reporting this as a new and
                    inexplicable development. An examination of the history
                    of the development of computer technology reveals,
                    however, that far from open-source development being a
                    digression from the norm, it is the way in which most
                    of the more significant technological advances were

                    In the late 1960s and the 1970s it was common practice
                    for programmers to share the products of their labour
                    with no restrictions. At that time companies and
                    individuals were more interested in the development of
                    the technology as a whole than safeguarding "trade

                    Not only academic institutions such as the Berkeley
                    campus of the University of California and the
                    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but also
                    commercial research centres such as Bell Labs and
                    Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) operated an
                    open policy in which computer source code was freely
                    exchanged between organisations.

                    Many of the original ideas for the desktop computer
                    popularised by Apple and Microsoft were first developed
                    by scientists working at the PARC labs. These included
                    the first desktop computer, the first commercial mouse,
                    Ethernet networking technology and many other

                    The early efforts in the 1970s focused on the
                    development of an operating system that could run on
                    multiple computer platforms. The most successful of
                    these was the Unix operating system and the C language
                    used for developing Unix applications. These were
                    originally developed at AT&T's Bell Laboratories. The
                    software was installed across institutions, being
                    transferred either freely or for only a nominal charge.
                    Sites where the software was installed made further
                    innovations and these were in turn shared with others.

                    The process of collaborative software development and
                    the sharing of source code were greatly enhanced with
                    the development of the Internet and, specifically, the
                    creation of Usenet in 1979. Usenet was a computer
                    network used to link together the Unix programming
                    community. In 1979 there were just three Usenet sites,
                    but by 1982 this had grown to over 400. The ability of
                    programmers in both corporate and academic settings to
                    rapidly share technologies led to huge technical

                    In these early years cooperation was of a highly
                    informal character. There was, in fact, no real effort
                    to delineate property rights or restrict the use of
                    software until the early 1980s. With the rapid growth
                    of the commercial use of computer systems, AT&T began
                    laying claim to intellectual property rights relating
                    to Unix, despite the fact that hundreds of programmers
                    at other institutions had contributed to its

                    Only with the advent of the personal computer as a mass
                    consumer item in the early 1980s did the idea of closed
                    proprietary systems come to be considered the corporate

                    As operating systems produced by Apple Macintosh and
                    Microsoft began to establish a mass user base, a
                    parallel development took place to maintain the open
                    source structure for software development. In the form
                    of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation
                    established by Richard Stallman in 1982, this took on a
                    directly political and ideological character.

                    Stallman worked at the Artificial Intelligence Lab of
                    MIT between 1971 and 1983. The AI lab used a
                    timesharing operating system called ITS (the
                    Incompatible Timesharing System) developed by the lab's
                    staff programmers. Stallman explains that while the
                    term "free software" was not yet invented, this is what
                    the system was. "Whenever people from another
                    university or a company wanted to port and use a
                    program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using
                    an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could ask to
                    see the source code, so that you could read it, change
                    it, or cannibalise parts of it to make a new program,"
                    he says.

                    In a paper entitled The GNU Project, Stallman writes,
                    "The idea that the proprietary software social
                    system-the system that says you are not allowed to
                    share or change software-is antisocial, that it is
                    unethical, that it is simply wrong may come as a
                    surprise to some readers. But what else could we say
                    about a system based on dividing the public and keeping
                    users helpless? Readers who find the idea surprising
                    may have taken [the] proprietary social system as
                    given, or judged it on the terms suggested by the
                    proprietary software businesses. Software publishers
                    have worked long and hard to convince people that there
                    is only one way to look at the issue."

                    On the issue of software companies having "an
                    unquestionable right to own software and thus have
                    power over all its users", Stallman claims, somewhat
                    naively, that the US Constitution and legal tradition
                    reject this view. "Copyright is not a natural right,
                    but an artificial government-imposed monopoly that
                    limits the users' natural right to copy," he writes.
                    Stallman opposes the conception that "the only
                    important thing about software is what jobs it allows
                    you to do-that we computer users should not care what
                    kind of society we are allowed to have."

                             Open source versus proprietary systems

                    The GNU project progressed steadily over the next few
                    years with volunteer programmers working on different
                    parts of the system, making them ready to run with
                    Unix. The only thing missing was the guts of the
                    system, the kernel. In 1991 the GNU kernel that had
                    been developed was abandoned in favour of another, the
                    Linux kernel developed as a hobby by a young student,
                    Linus Torvalds, at the University of Helsinki in

                    The merger of the GNU project with Linux to produce
                    GNU/Linux brought the work of these early volunteer
                    programmers to fruition, and in so doing provided
                    powerful evidence of the technical superiority of the
                    open-source method of working.

                    Taking the small Unix system Minix as his point of
                    departure, Torvalds had developed a system that
                    exceeded the Minix standards. His work began in 1991
                    when he released version 0.02. It progressed steadily
                    until 1994 when version 1.0 of the Linux Kernel was
                    released. The current version of the kernel is 2.3.

                    Torvalds' kernel and the work of the GNU project came
                    together to make a fully-fledged system free of the
                    controls of proprietary software companies. Today there
                    are dozens of commercially available distributions of
                    Linux containing thousands of utilities and
                    applications available for a fraction of the cost of
                    either the Microsoft or Apple operating systems.

                    Linux is arguably the most stable, widely supported,
                    flexible and powerful operating system available today.
                    It runs on a variety of computer hardware including
                    Intel clones and Apple Macintosh computers.
                    Distributions come complete with the free Apache web
                    server, which is used on over 55 percent of public web
                    sites on the Internet.

                    The success of Linux lies precisely in its openness.
                    Users of the operating system are themselves
                    developers. If the software does not perform a function
                    adequately, someone, somewhere will fix it. This fix
                    will be made publicly available and incorporated
                    speedily into the official release of the Linux Kernel.
                    Even non-technical users can take advantage of the
                    open-source system. There are literally thousands of
                    discussion forums within the Internet where users can
                    get answers to questions regarding the use of the
                    operating system and possible errors that may occur.

                    Contrast this with the attitude of Microsoft CEO Bill
                    Gates. In an "open letter to Hobbyists" written in 1976
                    Gates regaled against amateur computer users or
                    "hobbyists", accusing them of "theft":

                    "One thing you do do is prevent good software from
                    being written. 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 distributing it for free? The fact is, no one
                    besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby
                    software ... but there is very little incentive to make
                    this software available to hobbyists. Most directly,
                    the thing you do is theft" (Published in the Homebrew
                    Computer Club newsletter on February 3, 1976).

                             The market as a barrier to innovation

                    The issue of open source versus proprietary systems
                    goes beyond that of personal ethics and choice.
                    Whatever the benefits of the Linux operating system, it
                    has until now been largely the province of skilled
                    users. One of the reasons for this is lack of support
                    for computer peripherals such as graphics cards,
                    printers, scanners, etc. This is not due to a shortage
                    of skilled people to write the drivers necessary to
                    interface this equipment with the operating system. The
                    problem is the reluctance of some hardware
                    manufacturers to release the information necessary to
                    facilitate such a development.

                    In the last few years this has begun to change, with
                    companies such as Compaq and Hewlett Packard selling
                    computers with Linux installed.

                    A number of leading companies have also released their
                    software as open source. Most notably among these is
                    Apple. In unveiling the Mac OS X Server, CEO Steve Jobs
                    surprised an audience of reporters and software
                    developers last year by announcing that the software
                    would be put into open source. On April 11 Intel
                    Corporation announced that its Common Data Security
                    Architecture (CDSA) software would also be released as
                    open source.

                    There are definite economic antagonisms at work in the
                    campaign against Microsoft. Ultimately, the
                    government's proposal to break up the software giant
                    arises from a ferocious struggle between rival
                    corporate powers for control of markets and profits.

                    But the case against Microsoft also reflects a growing
                    recognition that the speed of technological change and
                    the demand for new and better systems requires a
                    technical leap that is being stifled by Microsoft's
                    continued dominance.

                    The emergence of the Internet as a mass medium, which
                    itself largely conforms to open standards, demands far
                    more flexibility in the next generation of computer
                    software. With new devices such as mobile phones and
                    wireless applications emerging at a fantastic pace,
                    manufacturers are demanding software that can be
                    modified and extended, i.e., they demand access to the
                    source code.

                    The open-source environment stands in such a stark
                    contrast to the established practice of Microsoft that
                    powerful sections of business, ultimately backed by the
                    government, concluded that it was necessary to bring
                    Microsoft into line. How far this will be pursued by
                    the government is by no means certain, not least
                    because Microsoft has a bigger financial war chest than
                    the US Justice Department.

                    It is impossible at this point to predict the final
                    outcome of the lawsuit against Microsoft. Ultimately
                    however, the conflict is not the product of the
                    subjective avarice of Bill Gates, on the one hand, or
                    some new-found democratic impulse on the part of the US
                    Justice Department, on the other. At a basic level it
                    is an expression of increasing tensions between the
                    development of technology, especially the Internet, and
                    the subordination of this technology to the capitalist
                    market and the system of private property upon which it
                    is based.

                    The fundamental issues raised in the Microsoft case
                    have a great significance for masses of working people.
                    What has been the effect on the working class of the
                    control of the new technology by big business?

                    Phenomenal technological advances have done nothing to
                    eliminate poverty for masses of working people in
                    America and elsewhere. Far from reducing social
                    inequality, the technological advances, under the
                    control of huge corporations, have been used to further
                    enrich the privileged few at the expense of the
                    majority of society. No actions taken by the US
                    government and Microsoft's corporate rivals will do
                    anything to change this situation.

                    It is worth noting that the case against Microsoft was
                    instigated by Netscape corporation, which is now owned
                    by another of the main instigators, America Online.
                    While, for their own reasons, they raise the negative
                    impact of Microsoft's monopoly in the software market,
                    we have yet to hear similar noises in relation to the
                    recent merger of AOL and Time Warner, which represents
                    the most direct attempt by business to monopolise the

                    Monopolisation is inherent to the capitalist system
                    itself. The struggle against it requires a political
                    struggle against very real class interests, which are
                    represented by a system in which production as a whole
                    is organised not for social need, but private profit.

                    Explanatory Notes
                    1. Here we use the term proprietary software to
                    describe the closed character of computer platforms
                    such as Microsoft. Under the proprietary system, both
                    the computer code and the details needed to develop
                    applications to run under Microsoft operating systems
                    are closely guarded secrets, released only to companies
                    which have signed deals with Microsoft. (return to
                    2. The term open source software refers to computer
                    applications and operating systems in which the code as
                    written by the programmer is made available alongside
                    the distributed software. Written in a language
                    understood by any computer programmer, the application
                    can then be modified or fixed, without the purchaser
                    being dependent upon the company that developed it.
                    (return to text)
                    3. GNU stands for "G'NU not Unix". It is the name give
                    to the system developed by a group of volunteer
                    programmers led by Richard Stallman. His GNU Project is
                    most famous for its association with the Linux
                    operating system. (return to text)

                    See Also:
                    Two days after antitrust ruling, White House, Congress
                    hail Microsoft billionaire
                    [8 April 2000]

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Craig Brozefsky                      <>
Free Scheme/Lisp Software
"Hiding like thieves in the night from life, illusions of 
oasis making you look twice.   -- Mos Def and Talib Kweli