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While Microsoft may be the biggest software company in the world, not every computer user is a fan of their products, or their way of doing business. While Microsoft's Windows became the most widely used operating system for personal computers in the world, many experts took issue with Microsoft's strict policies regarding licensing, ownership, distribution, and alteration of their software. The objections of many high-profile technology experts, most notably Richard Stallman, led to what has become known as "the Open Source Movement," which is centered on the belief that computer software should be free both in the economic and intellectual senses of the word. Eventually, one of Stallman's admirers, Linus Torvalds, created a new operating system called Linux, a freely distributed software which many programmers consider to be markedly superior to Windows. Revolution OS is a documentary that examines the genesis of the Open Source Movement, and explores and explains the technical and ... Written by
Mark Deming, Rovi
[when awarded the Linus Torvalds Award]
Richard M. Stallman:
So, very ironic things have happened, but nothing to match this. Giving the Linus Torvalds Award to the Free Software Foundation is sort of like giving the Han Solo Award to the rebel fleet.
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Entertaining and educational, but with an odd focus on the crash of tech stocks
"Revolution OS" starts off strong by allowing several important and articulate people to explain how and why they became involved with free and open source software. It uses these interviews very effectively to reveal the ideas, personalities, and history behind free software, open source, and Linux. Unfortunately, after this broad and detailed introduction, it ignores all implications of open source and free software except one: the impact of Linux on the commercial software market, and more specifically, the fate of "Linux companies" in the tech crash. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable and worthy film.
Complaints first. Unfortunately, "Revolution OS" is a short film, and it devotes a disproportionate amount of time to the emergence of Linux-related companies and the precipitous rise and then fall of their stock prices. Although it may be hard now to imagine someone seeing this film without already knowing that story, it's misleading for the film to present this spectacle without making it clear that these stocks were only a few of hundreds of computer stocks that shared the same fate. By devoting so much time to the buildup of commercial excitement about Linux and then concluding the film with the collapse of Linux company share prices, "Revolution OS" gives the impression that the recent history of Linux is contained in the boom-bust story of Linux stocks, leaving the uninformed viewer to conclude -- what? That the stock market has rendered final judgment on the value of open source? That the apparent importance of Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds was just a delusion of tech-crazed investors?
This distorted presentation is apparently due to the filmmakers' lack of understanding that the open source and free software phenomena have significance beyond Linux's impact on the commercial software market. So many other avenues could have been explored: the economic and social impact of the availability of free software in developing nations; perspectives from the economic theory of information; the utility of the ongoing creation of useful software by open source development teams; the applicability of licenses such as the GNU General Public License to everything that can be seen as information, including musical compositions and other intellectual creations; and last but certainly not least, the contributions of free software and open source ideas (and their opponents' ideas) to debates over intellectual property, perhaps the defining issue of this generation.
Simply mentioning some of these ways in which the free software and open source movements have the potential to influence society would have paid sufficient respect to the complexity of the subject, but after allotting generous time to philosophical and historical exposition, the filmmakers inexplicably revert to the simplistic public perception of Linux circa 2001: a bunch of geeks who almost got rich. In fact, if you only saw the last third of "Revolution OS", you would think it was a mock-affectionate eulogy for Linux geeks' dot-com dreams.
On the up side, the stars of "Revolution OS" are treated fairly, and their foibles generate plenty of humor, especially their ego clashes. When Richard Stallman accepts an award named after Linus Torvalds, he unleashes a simile about Torvalds' role in the success of Linux that left me laughing at its cleverness, Stallman's baldness in demanding his share of credit, and the (probably justified) assumption he makes of his audience's intimate familiarity with "Star Wars."
"Revolution OS" also deserves credit for the care it takes to portray the differences and disagreements between individuals, their common ground, and their varying attitudes toward unfree software. Merely recognizing that the difference between free software and open source software is important enough to present to a lay audience puts this movie in my good graces.
Overall, "Revolution OS" will be better understood and appreciated by people who are already familiar with the subject matter. Non-geeks, however, will find considerable enlightenment, especially if they follow up by reading _The Cathedral and the Bazaar_ (which is available on the web) and the articles by Richard Stallman and others on the "Philosophy of the GNU Project" page at the GNU web site.
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