Chapter Four, Part III

In 1991, Norwegian.hacker Linus Torvalds created his own version of the Unix operating system, dubbing it Linux. He then released the source code he had written to the public, so everyone out there—well, everyone who understood computer code—could see what he had done. More important, he attached a note that read, “If your efforts are freely distributable, I’d like to hear from you, so I can add them to the system.” It was a propitious decision. As one history of Linux points out: “Of the first ten people to download Linux, five sent back bug fixes, code improvements, and new features.” Over time, this improvement process became institutionalized, as thousands of programmers, working for free, contributed thousands of minor and major fixes to the operating system, making Linux ever-more reliable and robust.

Unlike Windows, which is owned by Microsoft and worked on only by Microsoft employees, Linux is owned by no one, When a problem arises with the way Linux works, it only gets fixed if someone, on his own, offers a good solution. There are no bosses ordering people around, no organizational charts dictating people’s responsibilities. Instead, people work on what they’re interested in
and ignore the rest. This seems like—in fact, it is—a rather haphazard way to solve problems. But so far at least, it has been remarkably effective, making Linux the single most important challenger to Microsoft.

Linux is clearly a decentralized system, since it has no formal organization and its contributors come from all over the world. What decentralization offers Linux is diversity In the traditional corporate model, top management hires the best employees it can, pays them to work full-time, generally gives them some direction about what problems to work on, and hopes for the best. That is not a bad model. It has the great virtue of making it easy to mobilize people to work on a particular problem, and it also allows companies to get very good at doing the things they know how to do. But it also necessarily limits the number of possible solutions that a corporation can come up with, both because of mathematical reality (a company has only so many workers, and they have only so much time) and because of the reality of organizational and bureaucratic politics. Linux, practically speaking, doesn’t worry much about either. Surprisingly, there seems to be a huge supply of programmers willing to contribute their efforts to make the system better. That guarantees that the field of possible solutions will he immense. There’s enough variety among programmers, and there are enough programmers, that no matter what the bug is, someone is going to come up with a fix for it. And there’s enough diversity that someone will recognize bugs when they appear. In the words of open-source guru Eric Raymond, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

In the way it operates, in fact, Linux is not all that different from a market, as we saw in Chapter 2 on diversity. Like a bee colony, it sends out lots of foragers and assumes that one of them will find the best route to the flower fields. This is, without a doubt, less efficient than simply trying to define the best route to the field or even picking the smartest forager and letting him go. After all, if hundreds or thousands of programmers are spending their time trying to come up with a solution that only a few of them are going to find, that’s many hours wasted that could he spent doing something else. And yet, just as the free market’s ability to generate lots of alternatives and then winnow them down is central to its continued growth, Linux’s seeming wastefulness is a kind of strength (a kind of strength that for-profit companies cannot, fortunately or unfortunately, rely on). You can let a thousand flowers bloom and then pick the one that smells the sweetest.

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