The top 4 internet flame wars about free software

Everyone knows about the infamous internet wars. Ranging from operating systems to text editors to code indentation style, these wars have wreaked havoc on the web for years. The topics range from serious topics like religion to serious geek topics like operating systems to just plain stupid topics like code indentation style. So today, I'm going to go through a list of some of the most famous topics and remind you of a few of the more, er, "famous" battles.

Figure 1: By Dave Fischer(, licensed under the CC-BY

Note: this is geeky, free software-related 'net wars only. No Creationism vs. Evolution, Global Warming vs. Non-Global Warming, Religion (or lack thereof) vs. Religion (or lack thereof), or Politician from [insert party or lack of party here] vs. Politician from [insert party or lack of party here].

Linux Torvalds (Linux) vs. Minix vs. Andrew Tanenbaum (Minix)

Quite possibly the most famous flame war ever took place in 1992, when Andrew Tanenbaum, creator of the MINIX operating system, attacked Linus Torvalds and his operating system, calling it "obsolete". Torvalds doesn't have the greatest temper (see below for the infamous Gnome flame war that he started), and the battle was joined. It's not often that you see two creators of popular operating systems flaming each other.

Other cross-platform internet wars

The Torvalds-Tanenbaum debate isn't the only cross-platform internet war. Microsoft itself has been involved in these, releasing studies that claim that the "total cost of ownership" (that is, full cost, not just the retail price on the boxes) is actually lower for Windows than it is for GNU/Linux. Novell, and many other GNU/Linux companies and individuals, have fought back and disputed these facts (though recently, Novell took down its truth page). Then of course, there are the numerous flame wars between individual users on both sides, ranging from the topics of security, usability, and ease of use. Even DARPA's gotten in on the war. And of course, the Mac guys always chime in with their middle ground of "ease of use and UNIX-based security". You'll probably want to read the Operating System Sucks-Rules-O-Meter page as well, for an in-depth look at how much each operating system sucks/rules according to AltaVista, and the Linux Sucks-Rules-O-Meter, for an in-depth look at how much each distribution sucks/rules.

Linus Torvalds (KDE) vs. GNOME

Disclaimer: I'm a KDE user. However, that's mainly because of habit, not because I think it so much better than Gnome or any other environment.

The second most famous flame war also involved Linus Torvalds. He complained that the Gnome users were targeting complete idiots, and that everyone should switch to KDE. That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that he did this rant on the Gnome mailing list. Jeff Waugh, a Gnome developer, politely dissented. Torvalds ripped into Waugh, calling the developers "interface nazis" and overall attacking the Gnome team. A wonderful flame war ensued, with Christopher Blizzard complaining that "** should be easy to figure the **", Christian F.K. Schaller suggesting that "Maybe you should actually try using GNOME for a Month or so instead of keep repeating your often wrong assumptions?", and Torvalds angrily replying that "You know what? Last night, I put my money where my mouth is. I did something better than any Gnome user has apparently ever done: I actually wrote the code to fix the thing."

Other GNOME vs. KDE wars

But that's not the only battle of this epic holy war that's been fought since 1997. After all, Gnome was created in response to KDE, which at the time relied on non-free Qt libraries (since then, Qt has been made free software). Now though, the battle mostly is about which is better: power, which is what KDE embraces, or ease-of-use, which is what Gnome embraces (and Torvalds hated). These battles are fought all the time, especially over at the Ubuntu arena, where many complain of Ubuntu developers being too Gnome heavy and ignoring Kubuntu, the KDE sibling.

vi vs. Emacs

Disclaimer: I never figured out how to use Emacs, so I use vi (or rather, Vim). I do not belong to the Cult of vi. Most of the time, I use Kate.

The infamous editor war isn't just a flame war. It's a holy war. On the one hand is the vi group, backed by the Cult of vi. The other is the Emacs group, led by St IGNUcius (aka Richard Stallman, creator of Emacs and a powerful figure in the free software community) and the Church of Emacs (which, interestingly enough, claims that the Cult of vi is "clearly a miserable attempt to ape their betters"). The Cult of vi, with prominent members like Tim O'Reilly, argues that vi is better since it mostly doesn't require modifier keys, is smaller and faster, and because the Single UNIX Specification specifies vi (not Emacs). The Church of Emacs, with prominent members like Linus Torvalds and Peter Norvig (Research Director at Google), fights back with its overwhelming features and plugins, the fact that it includes vi (viper-mode), and doesn't need to switch between modes to edit documents. Needless to say, this war has been going on forever, even spawning a video game.

Other GNOME vs. KDE wars

vi and Emacs aren't the only text editors around. The proponents of ed point out that even Bill Joy, the creator of vi, prefers ed. There are also supporters of Pico, a non-free app that is nonetheless a very popular UNIX editor, nano, a free Pico clone, JOE (Joe's Own Editor), a WordStar/Turbo C clone, and mcedit, the Midnight Commander text editor. Battles include the topics of Pico vs. vi, nano vs. vi, vi vs. Emacs vs. Pico, and even Emacs vs. vi vs. Notepad. You'll also want to check out the $EDITORs Sucks-Rules-O-Meter page, which measures how much each editor sucks/rules according to the 'net.

Indent styles: Kernighan & Ritchie vs. ANSI/BSD/Allman

Disclaimer: After lots of research, I found that I was an Allman style programmer, mainly because I found it to be the most usable. I really don't care enough about it to engage in a flame war, however.

When Kernighan and Ritchie wrote the first book on C, they unintentionally started a huge holy war regarding code indentation styles. The Kernighan and Ritchie style kept the first brace at the same line as the control statement, with function braces on the line after the declaration, with both having the same indentation. This is known by Kernighan and Ritchie disciples as "The One True Brace Style". However, they soon met with opposition, mainly from the Allman style, the default indentation for the documents that describe the ANSI C standard. This style puts the first brace on the line below the control statement at the same indentation level. This is an ongoing holy war that's been around since the beginning of programming, and its not likely to go away anytime soon. Popular battle topics include variable naming, clarity vs. coolness, and readability vs. screen size. And of course, if this issue is ever resolved, there's another question: how many spaces do you indent?

Other indent style wars

Of course, the One True Brace and the Allman aren't the only styles around. There's also the BSD KNF, basically is K&R with more specifications, the Whitesmiths style, with the first brace indented on the line after the control statement, and the Richard Stallman-created GNU style, where braces are put on the line after the control statement, indented two spaces, and the code within the braces is also indented two spaces.

Further Reading:


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