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Rebel Sells

To some in the open-source software community, de Icaza is a fallen angel – a legendary hacker who has strayed from the good and pure. One gripe within the community: Mono enlists code that appears dangerously similar to .Net code heavily patented by Microsoft. More generally, some worry that de Icaza represents the breakdown of the once strong barrier between open source and the corporate world. In fact, Microsoft has apparently come to deeply regret spurning de Icaza back in 1997. Microsoft software architect Don Box even wrote a song imploring de Icaza to join the company and sang it to him in front of a large audience at a party late last year. But even though he didn’t heed Box’s siren song, de Icaza has essentially been accused of selling out to the corporate world.

The notion of being a sellout doesn’t precisely amuse de Icaza, but he doesn’t seem put out by it, either. “There’s always some anticorporate fanaticism, but it’s a tiny minority,” he says. “Even back when I was working on GNOME, I knew companies would have to get involved. If you want to get all the benefits of the software, get rid of bugs, deploy it in real solutions, and bring it to a wide market, then you need big companies.”

There have, of course, been a few drawbacks to going corporate. De Icaza sometimes has to stagger in for early-morning marketing meetings, though for the most part he has been able to maintain his customary work schedule of noon to 2:00 a.m. More importantly, says de Icaza, his new job has given him the best of both worlds: the freedom and shared passion of the open-source world, backed by the deep pockets and long-term strategy of a large corporation. “We were at the mercy of VCs at Ximian,” he says. “We were constantly adjusting to whatever their latest idea was. But at Novell I’m thinking about what’s going to happen over the next seven years.”

If de Icaza seems to have left behind open source’s rebel personality, maybe it’s because he had a different revolution in mind all along. Having himself grown up in a country where most people can’t afford computers, de Icaza has long championed the open-source movement as a means of bringing affordable computing to poor communities. “I’ve got a global goal,” he says. “I want to make Linux successful on the desktop for countries where people can’t afford computers with proprietary software.” And while GNOME is already helping make Linux usable to less affluent computer users, Mono aims to ensure that those users will also have access to new generations of Web-enabled software.

If Mono achieves its goal, then Linux and other open-source programs are likely to continue to gain favor at the expense of Windows. Microsoft might then very well lose its long-standing domination of the computing world altogether, which would likely lower the cost of computing and, theoretically, provide more and better choice in software. That, at least, is the open-source vision. But revolutions seldom go according to plan. To know how the odyssey of de Icaza, and his fellow open-source programmers, will turn out, you’ll just have to stay tuned.

David H. Freedman is a freelance writer based in Needham, MA.

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