In December, hundreds of these controversial software developers gathered for one week at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. They came from all over the world, sporting many of the usual signs of software mercenaries: jeans, ponytails, unruly facial hair and bloodshot eyes.
But rather than preparing to code for the highest bidder, the developers were coordinating their largely volunteer effort to try to undermine Microsoft's Windows operating system for PCs, which generated close to $17 billion in sales last year.
All the fuss at the meeting centered on something called Ubuntu and a man named Mark Shuttleworth, the charismatic 35-year-old billionaire from South Africa who functions as the spiritual and financial leader of this coding clan.
Created just over four years ago, Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too) has emerged as the fastest-growing and most celebrated version of the Linux operating system, which competes with Windows primarily through its low, low price: $0.