Linux and the consumer advocate


Article from Issue 181/2015

"maddog" remembers meeting Ralph Nader and explaining the concept of open source software.

The year was 1998, and only four years after I had met Linus and become involved with Linux. It was the spring (May 18th to be exact), but still so cold that Ocean City, Maryland, was welcoming small conferences before the "summer crowd" shuffled in.

The conference that I attended that cold spring was Uniforum, which presented the business side of Unix systems. By this time, Linux (we had not started calling it "GNU/Linux" at that point) had been given a track of its own on the last day of the three-day conference, and I was the program chair for that track.

One of the main speakers that conference was Ralph Nader. For those of you who are perhaps too young or are not part of American politics, Nader is a tort lawyer, most famous for a book written in the mid-1960s called Unsafe At Any Speed about how manufacturers will often ignore safety issues to get products out to market at a lower cost or faster. A tort is a "wrongful act that hurts people" and includes cars, toys, dangerous chemicals, and even monopolistic acts, which is one of the reasons that Nader was at Uniforum, talking about how software monopolies hurt the software industry.

Nader was there with James Love, the Director of the Consumer Project on Technology, and both of them were speaking about Open Standards and why government offices were still writing purchase orders that benefitted the closed source (Microsoft) Windows NT instead of Unix from vendors who were compliant with the UNIX 95 Open Standards.

I had met Ralph Nader that morning for breakfast. I found out that he was basically going to complain about government purchasing and how the government passed laws requiring the purchase of compliant software, but even they did not follow their own laws. He was fairly upset about it. So I started telling him about Linux.

It turns out that Nader had never heard about Linux or Open Source, nor had James Love. They listened intently while I described the fundamentals of Free Software, and I could see the wheels twirling in their heads. They asked if companies could make money with Linux, and I answered "of course."

I later went to hear Nader's lunchtime talk. It was amazing. In the space of a couple of hours – between our breakfast and his lunchtime speech – Nader had embraced Free Software, and he had it down cold, at least from the 50,000-foot level. He was all about how Open Standards in conjunction with Free Software would move the computer industry further and faster.

Later that same day, the US Department of Justice declared that Microsoft was a monopoly. By August 1998, seven of the computers in Ralph Nader's office had been shifted to Free Software.

The next year at an event called "The Bazaar" in New York City (December 15, 1999), Nader keynoted again and said the biggest enemy to the computer industry was Microsoft selling bug fixes in their operating system updates. "Planned obsolescence" was what he called it, and he was not happy about that. Nader thought that if you had bugs in the operating system you purchased, you deserved to get the updates with those bug fixes for free. What a concept! Again, he pointed to the Free Software community as another business model for the production of software.

In 2001, Nader and Love wrote a joint letter discussing the results of the Justice Department's case against Microsoft. After years of court battle, the final judgement came very quickly, and Nader thought that the judgement had no teeth. I had to agree with him.

This month's article was inspired because Nader recently opened a museum about tort law – the law that protects someone from wrongful injury, the law to which he has dedicated his life.

I am happy that I met with Ralph Nader and James Love for breakfast on that cold day in 1998. One short talk created a champion for life: someone to say that closed source is unsafe at any speed.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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