Issue #63

Last Update April 30, 2009

Technology Daemon, Gnu, Penguin by Sten Grynir October 13, 2008  In his thought-provoking book, "The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin", Peter H. Salus, the leading documenter of the history of Linux and the Internet, takes a close look at the Open Source movement and comes to grips with "how free and open software is changing the world", as his subtitle states. Accurately defining "free and open", and tracing the history of this philosophy of software development, Dr. Salus shows how this cooperative paradigm has the possibility of supplanting, or at least complementing, the proprietary/competitive model on which most of our economic development of the past several centuries has been based.

The first three-quarters of the book give the reader the necessary knowledge to understand the sociological analysis that makes up the last quarter if the book. Using the history of the UNIX operating system (the master control programs that direct computer usage and coordinate hardware and software), its descendants and the GNU toolkit that provided the UNIX kernel with its commands and utilities as a guide, Dr. Salus shows how the ethos of collaboration and sharing was present from the beginning, even though the UNIX operating system itself was developed under the aegis of, and owned by, AT&T. Restricted by an antimonopoly consent decree from selling its operating system, sharing of computer code among government and academic researchers was common, and necessary to progress. When restrictions on sharing tightened, developers found a way to continue, modifying an older, unrestricted version into several flavors of open-source UNIX.

In tracing the development of the various key pieces of open source software (operating system kernel, text editor, language compiler and utilities kit), the pioneers and key players are described and quoted at length, and the politics of developers and vendors laid bare. The difference between "open source" (the availability of computer code for review and modification: excellence through code sharing) and "free software" (the moral and ethical viewpoint that software should be freely available) is made clear. The "four freedoms" (the freedom to use the software for any purpose; the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors; the freedom to change the software to suit your needs; and the freedom to share the changes you make) stands as the best definition yet of free software. The various legal battles fought to preserve the ability to shake off the proprietary yoke are described in some detail.

While this book will be fascinating to technical people working the in UNIX/Linux/BSD environment, its value for the lay reader lies in the discussion of the GPL and other free software licenses and their relationship to US copyright law, the chapters describing the Web as an outgrowth of free software, open source as a business model, the use of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) by Microsoft and others to rein in the open source movement, and especially the chapters headed "Advanced Capitalism" and "Behavioral Economics", which describe the odd mixture of socialism and capitalism that flourishes in the free software business environment. Of particular interest is the statement that "Open Source software removes money from the equation and opens the opportunity to take other forces into account." Although Dr. Salus traces some of the business forces back to Sears-Roebuck and the catalog movement, what is particularly clear is that the open source business model has more in common with the academic research model (especially in the physical sciences) than any other economic structure.

This is a worthwhile book that contains enough lists, time lines and biographies to satisfy the history-oriented technofreak, but the real payoff is the last few chapters that illuminate the philosophical underpinnings of the movement, and lay bare the implications for the future.

"The Daemon, the Gnu, and the Penguin" (ISBN 978-0-9790342-3-7) is available from and

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