Linus and BitKeeper: the end of a dangerous relationship

Nobody should be surprised. Proprietary software works this way: the power is always in the developer, who decides who, when and how can a given program be used. While the developer is friendly, the software is available under some conditions, but at some point, this can stop.

And the main milestones of the story were as follows:

  • December 1999: Linux PowerPC project starts using BitKeeper, a proprietary SCM tool with a friendly license for Free(dom) Software projects.
  • February 2002: Linus starts using BitKeeper for Linux development.
  • During several months of 2002, there were a lot of discussions on the topic. Most of them are described in detail at Kerneltrap: Feb 14, March 7, October 5.
  • 2002-03-07: Linus said: “If Larry turns to the dark side (or, as some would say, the “even darker side” 😉 we’re _still_ ok. The data isn’t going anywhere, he can’t close that down. We’d just have to export it into a new format. If worst comes to worst, and nobody has fixed CVS/subversion/whatever by then, I can even just go back to how I used to work. Nothing lost. And I personally refuse to use inferior tools because of ideology. In fact, I will go as far as saying that making excuses for bad tools due to ideology is _stupid_, and people who do that think with their gonads, not their brains. ”
  • 2002-03-20: Linus added: “Quite frankly, I don’t _want_ people using Linux for ideological reasons. I think ideology sucks. This world would be a much better place if people had less ideology, and a whole lot more “I do this because it’s FUN and because others might find it useful, not because I got religion”. Would I prefer to use a tool that didn’t have any restrictions on it for kernel maintenance? Yes. But since no such tool exists, and since I’m personally not very interested in writing one, _and_ since I don’t have any hangups about using the right tool for the job, I use BitKeeper.”
  • 2002-05-21: Stallman said: “Linux, the kernel, is often thought of as the flagship of free software, yet its current version is partially non-free. How did this happen? This problem, like the decision to use BitKeeper, reflects the attitude of the
    original developer of Linux, a person who thinks that “technically better” is more important than freedom. Value your freedom, or you will lose it, teaches history. Don’t bother us with politics, respond those who don’t want to learn.”

  • During 3 years, a lot of people talked about the subject, some of them agreeing with Linus “just for fun” approach, and others denouncing the problems this pragmatic (in short term) approach has for the goals for the Free Software Movement.
  • 2005-04-05: Bitmover announces that stops providing Open Source version of BitKeeper (a.k.a. Larry turns to the dark side).
  • 2005-04-06: Linus Torvalds announces he stops using BitKeeper for Linux development: he is going to look into the alternatives, specially into the until now quite unknown Monotone.
  • 2005-04-07: The topic reaches the main sites, like Kerneltrap, or Slashdot, and discussion starts again.

Would have been better to slow down a bit the kernel development, which was according to Linus increased with BitKeeper, using the available free software tools? Or was it better to promote indirectly a proprietary program and to speed up the development until the moment we have arrived now to: the point where the proprietary company feels they don’t need the kernel any more and want to “fly alone” without offering the “open source friendly” version?

I’m closer to Stallman than to Linus, as most of the time. That’s why I talk about Free(dom) Software instead of Open Source. That’s why I *also* like to take into account the social dimension of software. That’s why I think it would have been better not to use BitKeeper for Linux development.

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