Free Lunches (was: OUTREACH 101)

Wayne Hayes (
Tue, 16 Dec 1997 12:50:58 -0500

"Michael M. Butler" <butler@comp*> writes:
>TANSTAAFL is an acronym for "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free
>Lunch"--first (to my knowledge) used in Robert A. Heinlein's novel _The
>Moon Is A Harsh Mistress_. It communicates the sentiment that you
>usually get what you pay for, and that things that are labeled "free"
>usually have some hidden cost.

In general I agree that this is true, but there are some extremely
notable exceptions. The one that pops to my mind is Linux, and much of
the GNU/FSF (Free Software Foundation) software. Both Linux and GNU
produce software that is generally better(*) than similar software
produced commercially.

(*) "Better" is a loaded word. Linux & GNU software is better in many
well-defined ways, like reliability and breadth and depth of
functionality. (Since they're both Unix-based packages, I'm not making
any claims about quality of user-interface compared to Windows or
MacIntosh, for example.) Linux is a superior operating system than any
commercial Unix that I'm aware of, in that it is more reliable, and has
everything that most other general-purpose Unices have, and also have
some very nifty, clean, advanced features that few, if any, other
operating systems have. And it is completely free. GNU software is
similar; it is completely free, and the mature products are just as
good or better than anything available commercially. This is why, for
example, Sun has stopped shipping a C compiler by default (they still
have one, but they don't ship it unless you wan it), and are telling
their users to use GNU CC.

The interesting question is "Why are Linux and GNU so successful, given
that they are written by people who aren't being paid?" The answer, at
least in part (and in my opinion almost entirely), is because the
people who write the software do it on their own time, because they
*enjoy* writing good software. An important practical factor in this
equation is that there are no deadline pressures to "get a product
out". So things get done slowly, but they get done *right*, and they
get it done right *the first time*, usually.

I think this is a beautiful example of how a non-commercial entity can
come up with a staggeringly successful product that simply blows away
the competition. "Successful" is also a loaded word; nobody is getting
rich, but the product is clearly technically superior to anything else

I don't claim that an economy can be based on such products, because
most people work because they *have* to, not because they enjoy their
work. The people who write GNU and Linux do it mostly because they
enjoy it. ("Bragging rights" comes into the picture as well,

I'd be interested in hearing other notable exceptions to TANSTAAFL.