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BY PETER WAYNER | In December, I stopped by to see some old friends and colleagues at Group Logic, a software firm in Virginia. After a few minutes of chatter, Derick Naef, the director of project development, asked, with a bit of excitement, "Hey, did you hear? Rob Newberry got his code in the Linux kernel."
He said this with an amount of pride roughly equivalent to announcing that someone hit a hole in one, had a child accepted to Harvard, ran a marathon in under three hours or got the city council to stop development of a chemical plant in your backyard. His voice made clear that this was a major event that was worth bragging about -- perhaps not in the same league as hitting 70 home runs, but equivalent to getting drafted by a major sports team.
Normally, no one would much care about such a technical detail. Most people confuse the term "kernel" with the honorific given to people like Colonel Sanders, and they don't care about their software as long as it runs and doesn't crash on New Year's Day 2000.
But Linux is different these days -- it's caught in a hype storm that makes everyone want to understand what makes it tick. It's a free operating system developed by a loosely knit coalition of developers who've donated their time and effort to building it. The source code is given away for free in regular periodic updates (this week saw the release of the long-awaited Linux 2.2 kernel); programmers grab a copy for themselves, use it and occasionally donate their own fixes to the process.
Now Linux has reached a critical mass where it provides many of the same services as commercial operating systems like Windows, but at no charge -- and many people are wondering whether it could dethrone Microsoft. If it does, it will be because of lots of people like Rob Newberry who are making small contributions to the big effort.
The kernel is the core of the operating system responsible for making sure that different parts of the computer communicate with each other. It's the computer's combination basement, boiler room, kitchen and loading dock -- and only the bravest programmers actually enjoy the heat of working there.
The roster of contributors to the Linux kernel has become a kind of pantheon of respect -- not unlike the academies in various intellectual fields. Linux software is well-built, in part, because a team of dedicated programmers tests new code and guards the kernel with a fair degree of pride. New software is only introduced when it makes a good contribution.
N E X T_ P A G E .|. Programmers fix things that bug them, then offer their work to the world