De Icaza’s story, like those of most programmers active in the open-source community, has been closely entwined with the story of Linux. Linux appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 1991 when a Finnish student named Linus Torvalds posted the first version of it on the Web, offering PC users a way to escape what many saw as Microsoft’s tyranny. Up until that point, the open-source movement had been relatively tiny, struggling to put an operating system together piece by piece. With the appearance of Linux, the community had a viable, working alternative to Windows.
But there was a catch: using Linux required typing out arcane commands. Eliminating these commands is where de Icaza would make his mark. In 1991, he was an 18-year-old mathematics student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico – Mexico’s Harvard. De Icaza couldn’t afford a PC, but he had access to the university’s computers and soon stumbled onto the suddenly thriving online world of the open-source community – a series of bulletin boards on which a sort of rebel alliance of hackers posted programs built on the freshly posted Linux platform and swapped extended barbs on everything from code to politics.
De Icaza soon made a name for himself writing a file management program for Linux, and by 1997 he had come to the attention of Microsoft, which flew him to its headquarters in Redmond, WA, for a job interview. According to Nat Friedman, a then intern at Microsoft and later a cofounder of Ximian, de Icaza took the interview as an opportunity to lecture managers on why Microsoft should abandon its multibillion-dollar business model and embrace open-source programming. Not surprisingly, de Icaza wasn’t hired. Instead, he returned to Mexico City to launch the project that would strike at the heart of Microsoft’s business.
The project was called GNOME, and it set the audacious goal of giving Linux a graphical interface as easy to use as the Windows desktop, thereby rendering Linux a legitimate alternative for everyday users in businesses and the home (see “The Linux Revolution, Part II,” p. 50). In 1997, a few hundred open-source programmers around the world flocked online to join de Icaza. By 1999 an initial version of GNOME was complete, and it was soon adopted by tens of thousands of users, as well as by Hewlett-Packard, Novell, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems, and other companies. (De Icaza was named TR100 Innovator of the Year by Technology Review in 1999.)
GNOME had established de Icaza as not only a top-notch coder but also as someone with a keen eye for the big project and a knack for getting people on board. “I enjoy working on open-source software, but I particularly enjoy working with Miguel,” says Todd Berman, a software developer at Medsphere Systems, a health-care infotech company in Aliso Viejo, CA. “He’s a visionary, and he has a way of keeping things fun.” De Icaza, says Oracle’s Shaver, has a “terrifying talent for finding the right people and getting a project to critical mass.”
Later in 1999, Friedman suggested to de Icaza that the two of them start a software company. Ximian was aimed at providing Linux users with the sort of application software that Windows users take for granted – tools like e-mail programs and online calendars, as well as software that helps information systems managers at companies keep employees’ computers running smoothly. For most people, getting a fledgling company up and running would have been enough. But about a year later, de Icaza was already on to his next big thing. Tapping many of the GNOME programmers and using Ximian as a base, de Icaza plotted the launch of open source’s ultimate assault on Microsoft’s dominance.