In an idealistic corner of the computer world, there is a breed of benign engineers called open-source software programmers. They believe in sharing their work rather than selling it. Yet last month when one of these programmers, Miguel de Icaza, 27, announced the creation of the Gnome Foundation to bring open-source software to the masses, he was flanked by such giant corporate partners as Sun Microsystems, Compaq and IBM. That makes de Icaza a type that's rarer still: part software hippie handing flowers to the corporate police, part digital-age powerhouse.
The open-source movement is based on programmers' writing software and then giving it away, with coding for all to see. Every programmer who uses it is free to improve on it, in the process creating constantly improving, free software. But while Linux, the open-source operating system, runs on about a quarter of servers, it is relatively rare on home computers because it has been just too hard for nonexperts to use.
Gnome's goal--and de Icaza's--is to make life easier on the open-source barricades. The Gnome computer desktop comes bundled with many versions of Linux and gives it an easy-to-use interface. And Gnome is promoting development of programs that will provide the same ease of use for open-source word processing, spreadsheets and other software tools.
There is money to be made in open source. Brand-name Linux packages cost money. De Icaza's company, Helix Code, sells Gnome service and support. And big tech companies stand to benefit if there is an inexpensive alternative to Microsoft products. Which explains why this is one revolution significant parts of corporate America can get behind.
--By Bill Syken