There’s no free lunch, but there is abundant free source-code software out there in the ether. Perhaps you have no idea what “source code” is. You will get just the sketchiest of notions here, hidden in a thoroughgoing description of the movement to spread the thing around.
Wayner, a prodigious computernik, shows us a civilization of hackers, by hackers, and for hackers, and his account is of particular interest to that breed of programmers who can write their own superior variant operating systems and say to hell with Windows. It all started in Finland not so long ago when Linus Torvalds, the principal guru of free software, wrote his original operating system on his dinky PC. Then he gave it, gratis, to anyone who wanted it. That fit of altruism earned him more devoted followers than L. Ron Hubbard. His program, Linux, became the system that (together with another from Berkeley) is the wellspring for a universal cadre of hackers who elaborate and enhance the software (which, happily, is amenable to such manipulation). Their hard work and considerable debugging are freely available to all, so nobody needs to buy shrink-wrapped programs. Some enterprising lads, nevertheless, have packaged manuals, CDs, and backups for sale at nominal cost. (Their software may be reproduced freely.) Was the movement, as one leader famously asked, a bazaar of ideas—or more like a cathedral under the benign guidance of one architect? As the hacker garage bands of the Internet formed various allegiances, it became a real free-for-all. Eventually AT&T and Microsoft noticed and, with the whiff of money in the air, lawyers were hired (in a move that was particularly offensive to the attorney-phobic author). The Source Wars are heating up, but it will be a tough fight. Wayner’s money is on the hacker freedom-fighters against the plutocratic suits.
Loaded with computer jargon and acronyms, this is a story told with gusto by a knowledgeable devotee—but for computer illiterates outside cubicle farms, accessibility will be limited.