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Revolution OS

Other // Unrated // September 16, 2003
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted September 14, 2003 | E-mail the Author
The movie

When you buy a new PC, if you have a choice whether or not to have the Microsoft Windows operating system pre-installed, you have Linux to thank for that. Linux: it's not a person (though it's named for its creator, Linus Torvalds), but rather a computer operating system that is both free (yes, that's right: you don't have to pay for it) and "open source," meaning that its source code is available for anybody to tinker with. More than that, it's an operating system whose proponents managed to boot-strap it up from its humble origins at the hands of a few visionary hackers to become a major competitor for the corporate giant Microsoft.

Revolution OS (the OS stands for "operating system") steps back to the origins of the Free Software movement to reveal how Linux is more than just a competitor for Windows with a lower price tag. It's the culmination of the "hacker ethic," as exemplified by the technological guru Richard Stallman. In this mindset, while users buy their hardware, the software that they use ought to be free, and what's more, freely shared, for each person to tweak, improve, and build on to create new, more powerful programs.

For the technically inclined, Revolution OS offers a fascinating look into the origins and development of the Linux operating system, following it from its origins in the combination of Stallman's GNU system with Linus Torvald's Linux. At the same time, the film traces the development of the Open Source movement, also with origins in Stallman's hacker ideology but growing into something different in the hands of the Silicon Valley software engineers who expanded the reach of Linux as a viable choice for an operating system.

But Revolution OS isn't just a documentary for techies. Its presentation of the "battle of the operating systems" may be eye-opening for viewers who are used to the ubiquity of Microsoft Windows, but even beyond that, it's a fascinating look at the closest thing the U.S. has got to a modern-day Utopian vision: people coming together into communities bound only by their shared love of computers and information, designing, building, and improving complex software for the sheer joy of creating and sharing. It's a kind of counterculture that, as we see in Revolution OS, drew in an assortment of very different characters: from visionaries like Stallman to entrepreneurs, from people like Linus Torvalds whose interest lay solely in the technical side of things to people like Eric Raymond who looked at the open source movement with an anthropologist's eye and drew larger organizational conclusions.

Perhaps partly because I was already somewhat familiar with the "hacker ethic" and Richard Stallman's work (from reading Steven Levy's nonfiction book Hackers, which I highly recommend), I found myself wishing that Revolution OS would go a little bit more in-depth in its presentation of the material. This is a fairly minor quibble, though; as a whole, Revolution OS does an excellent job of presenting a nicely structured, well paced presentation of the various threads that make up the Linux/Open Source movement.

While the program as a whole takes an enthusiastic slant toward the whole Open Source movement, it's not cheerleading for anything. The various interviewees are clearly excited to talk about Linux, Open Source, and the Free Software movement, and that sort of enthusiasm is always infectious to some degree, but even when Richard Stallman is at his most vehement, there's never a sense that the filmmakers are trying to press an ideology on the viewer. And I was interested to note how Revolution OS concludes: although the program as a whole is focused on the origins and development of Linux, it's also up-to-date, and we also see briefly what happens to Linux in its competition with Windows and to the Linux-based companies in the post-dot-com mania.

All in all, Revolution OS is certainly worth viewing. With a running time of two hours, it's long enough to present the material without feeling rushed, and it's paced well enough that the program is always moving steadily along and keeping the viewer interested.


Revolution OS is a two-disc set, nicely packaged in a single-wide keepcase that has a separate "page" inside to secure both discs in plastic spindles. Appropriately enough, given the philosophy of the Free Software and Open Source movements, this is a region-free disc (Region 0), and it proudly states that it is CSS-encryption free. It's in the NTSC format.


Revolution OS is presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio transfer. It's not anamorphically enhanced. Overall, the image is respectable, and certainly good enough for the material being presented: mainly interview footage. Colors are natural-looking, contrast is fine, and while the image isn't extremely crisp, it does have a nice clean look.


The Dolby 2.0 sound is a notch above average, offering a clean and generally clear listening experience. A few of the interview clips are a bit muffled-sounding due to that segment being recorded in a noisy or otherwise sub-optimal environment, but on the whole Revolution OS sounds fine.


Revolution OS puts a solid amount of material in support of its "Special Edition" label: the second disc is definitely necessary.

On the first DVD, we have the option of watching the documentary with a director's commentary or with a music-only audio track. I can't imagine what would possess anyone to want to watch a documentary like this with only the music... not to mention the fact that (let's face it) the music is lousy, always managing to be slightly (or wildly) inappropriate for the material it's supporting. There are also trailers for Revolution OS and a completely unrelated feature film.

70 minutes of additional interview footage are included as the first special feature on the second DVD. We get further interview segments from most of the people interviewed in the main feature; I am pleased to note that this is all new material, with no repeated footage from the documentary. It's nicely organized, with title screens appearing to indicate the topic of that segment of the conversation. We get to see Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Brian Behlendorf, Michael Tiemann, Bruce Perens, and Larry Augustin, as well as a segment from the panel discussion on Open Source at the 1999 Linux World convention. It's possible to select individual interviews, or to play them all continuously (using the "continue" button, oddly enough).

The second major section of special features is the "Document Files" section. Here we get the full text of a variety of documents related to the Open Source movement. Of most note here is the inclusion of several key documents that are referred to in Revolution OS: "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," the article by Eric Raymond; the GNU General Public License; the GNU Manifesto; and the Open Source Definition, version 1.9. We also get the lyrics to the "Free Software Song" (OK, I could have done without that) and Richard Stallman's initial announcement. The one drawback to this otherwise excellent collection of documents is that they're displayed in a not-very-user-friendly white font on various colored backgrounds.

A section of "Biographies" has (not surprisingly) biographies of the principal players mentioned in the documentary. Hidden at the end of the biographies section, though, is another useful feature: a list of additional resources on Linux and Open Source topics.

Finally, we also get a photo gallery and the full music video of the "Free Software Song," in case you really couldn't get enough of it.

Final thoughts

Don't be fooled by the fairly specialized topic of Revolution OS: this is a well-done documentary that will be of interest to anyone who's curious about computer-related topics, whether they're an experienced techie who knows all about the Linux vs. Windows debacle or just someone who's curious to know what all this "Open Source" and "Free Software" stuff is all about. Revolution OS shows not just the technical side of Linux's development, but also the philosophical side, and as you'll see, ideas of community-building, sharing, and encouraging creativity are at the heart of the GNU-Linux system. With a nice widescreen transfer and a second disc packed with extras, Revolution OS stands as a solid "recommended."

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