LJ Archive

Linux for Suits

The Producer Electronics Revolution

Doc Searls

Issue #144, April 2006

The open media revolution is upon us with blogs and podcasts leading the way.

I'm writing this on the way back from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas—the biggest tradeshow on Earth. This year, 150,000 visitors came to see 2,500 exhibits spread across 1.3 million square feet. One of those visitors was Andrew Leyden of PenguinRadio, who joined me for a day of hunting for Cool Linux Stuff. Andrew is a consumer electronics veteran, making Linux-based Internet radios since 1999.

Andrew is a walking case study in resourcefulness and persistence, as well as living proof that, as he puts it, “The commercial sphere is shrinking and the DIY sphere is growing.”

You wouldn't have heard a statement like that from the brand-name companies and keynoters who starred at CES. Not from Bill Gates, who gave the opening keynote (which, in a long-standing tradition for me, I missed—though thousands waited hours to attend). Not from Intel, which brought Tom Hanks, Danny DeVito, Morgan Freeman and other stars on stage to promote its proprietary new “content delivery” system. Not even from Larry Page of Google, who gave a sincere, human and blessedly unscripted keynote, guest-starring Robin Williams, who was funny as hell.

CES is a commercial sphere, and most of us continue to live in commercial environments. That's what proprietary systems are. And, that's why Google (which runs its massive search infrastructure on Linux and participates in many open-source development communities) introduced a raft of products and services at CES that ran only on Windows clients. One was a new video store that worked only for Windows clients built by Google, and which required Google's own DRM. When I asked Larry if and when Google would come out with stuff that ran on other clients, he admitted that it was “a problem” and said they're working on it. At least when Google says that, I believe them. Out on the CES show floor, when an executive with another company answered the same kind of question with “We're always looking to improve the user experience”, Andrew and I could barely conceal our utter disbelief.

Of course, everybody talked about “putting the user in charge” and “having your media your way”, but there was little credit given to users who really do take charge, operate independently and even produce their own media. In his 1995 essay “Death From Above”, John Perry Barlow wrote, “America remains a place where companies produce and consumers consume in an economic relationship which is still as asymmetrical as that of bomber to bombee.” It's bad enough that this asymmetry persists in consumer electronics. It's especially discouraging to see leaders in the computer business—Intel, Dell, Microsoft, Apple and even Google—go Hollywood on us.

I heard about the user-side revolution only from bloggers, podcasters and wiki writers, most of whom are glad to take advantage of Linux, open source, free software and free markets. Consumer electronics is gradually being transformed by all these developments, even as its largest brand names still labor, with success, to herd consumers into proprietary silos and walled gardens, now guarded by shiny new DRM systems.

But the revolution will soon become undeniable, even if it isn't televised.

When I first started talking with Andrew, seven years ago, PenguinRadio was a hardware start-up, making radios for playing .mp3 streams. The company still does that, but now most of its revenue comes from advertising in its podcast directory (podcastdirectory.com). Weekly visitors have gone from 150 to 3 million.

A good starting point for measuring the growth of podcasting appears in “DIY Radio With Podcasting”, a piece I wrote for IT Garage (Linux Journal's sister site) on September 29, 2004. There, I said, “... now most of my radio listening is to what Adam Curry and others are starting to call podcasts. That last link currently brings up 24 results on Google. A year from now, it will pull up hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions.”

I guessed low. According to Wikipedia, “There were 526 hits on September 30, then 2,750 three days later. The number doubled every few days, passing 100,000 by October 18. A year later, Google found more than 100,000,000 hits on the word 'podcasts'.”

Today (in early January 2006), “blog” brings up 510 million. Perspective: that's 56 million more than the word “consumer”.

“Weblog” brings up 141 million. “Wiki” brings up 240 million.

Compare those to some of the numbers we tracked in UpFront (p. 20), and you'll see how big this transformation is.

It has been my privilege to stand several inches away from ground zero for both the Weblog and podcast explosions. My own blog (doc.weblogs.com) was launched in October 1999, when “blogfather” (of weblogs.com, RSS and too many other developments to name) Dave Winer sat me down and insisted I start blogging. Today my blog is in Technorati's Top 100, out of the 24.7 million blogs (or sources of RSS feeds) tracked by the service. Of the 3.55 million results Google yields for my name, 2.61 also mention “blog”. That's compared to 510,000 that also mention “linux”.

Technorati was born in November 2003, when David Sifry hacked it up as a research tool to help write the first Linux Journal story on blogging. Today Technorati is the #708 Web site on Earth, according to Alexa's traffic rankings. That's ahead of the A9.com search engine, which (like Alexa) is owned by Amazon.com. Technorati is searched several dozen million times a day. (Disclosure: I'm on the Technorati advisory board.)

As for podcasting, I enjoy membership in the Gillmor Gang, a popular weekly podcast that began in 2004. Steve Gillmor's gang takes an hour or so of my time each week. Blogging takes more, but mostly because my efforts have spread to IT Garage, my SuitWatch newsletter and Linux Journal's own Web site, all of which have RSS feeds and plenty of subscribers. Although my personal blog might run up to a thousand or more words a day, it doesn't take much time because I treat it as a form of public e-mail: a kind of “cc:world”. In fact, most of what I write in my blog is in response to e-mails. The rest is in response to subscriptions to keyword searches in Technorati, Pubsub, Google's Blogsearch and other engines that operate in the Live Web that updates constantly (rather than from the relatively Static Web of sites that change slowly and aren't syndicated).

I say all this because I think that many people—even some Linux Journal readers—still don't know the extremely high leverage blogging, podcasting and wiki writing can provide. If you write something useful, or provocative, that adds substance to the world—and if you link out to others who serve as sources or also have interesting things to say—the results can be amazing. Search for “Saving the Net” or “Linux is a species”, and you'll find stuff I wrote (both for Linux Journal) at or near the top of the results.

These results aren't due to “search engine optimization”, but rather to the fact that I try to write stuff that's useful, funny, moving, productive or otherwise interesting—knowing that others will want to write about the same things.

All three of this month's topics—blogs, podcasts and wikis—are extraordinarily useful levers on the world. One big reason is that they're personal. Back in the early days of Weblogging, Dave Winer described a blog as “the unedited voice of an individual”.

Blogs and podcasts (and even wikis in some cases) can make us much more valuable as employees as well. My roommate at CES was Robert Scoble, a friend of many years who has recently become Microsoft's most well-known blogger, with around 25,000 readers a day. A few days before we got together at CES, Robert raised eyebrows by lambasting his employer for taking down a blogger under pressure from the Chinese government. Speaking frankly to, as well as for, his employer, has been good for both Robert and Microsoft.

Yet, we still tend to see companies as the main instruments of progress, even when the subject is open source.

For example, take a BusinessWeek article (www.businessweek.com/technology/content/dec2005/tc20051228_262746.htm) from December 28, 2005. The title says “A Watershed for Open Source In 2005”, and the teaser subhead says “The software movement finally gained traction in Corporate America and saw a new influx of VC cash. How will 2006 shape up?” The article lists and describes the “five biggest open-source events of 2005”. The five involve 1) Red Hat, 2) Sun Microsytems, 3) Motorola, 4) Firefox and 5) venture capitalists.

If I had to name five watersheds, I would list developments instead of events. And I would look at what developers and users are doing together over a long period of time, rather than what companies, funders and projects happened to do in the year just past.

Three of my top five developments would be blogs, wikis and podcasts. Not sure what the other two would be. Why? Because I've heard Linus and the kernel developers say, “That's user space. I don't do user space.” So my natural response is to say “That's not user space. I only do user space.”

The fun thing about blogs, wikis and podcasts is that users and developers work closely together. In fact, that interaction is essential to progress. For evidence, look at the collaboration around microformats, tagging, structured blogging and OPML. The standards and practices of blogs, podcasts and wikis are all being pushed forward by individuals and developers, working together.

In fact, my favorite explanation of what's good about the GPL came from Mark Pilgrim, in a blog post titled “Freedom 0” (diveintomark.org/archives/2004/05/14/freedom-0), written shortly after Six Apart came up with a restrictive new license for Movable Type, its formerly (somewhat) open-source blogging software. One excerpt:

Many people misunderstand Free Software and the GNU General Public License. Many people equate the GPL to the boogeyman, because it's “viral”, and that sounds like a bad thing. Here's what viral licensing means: GPL software has the restrictions that it has, and that's it. The GPL is quite restrictive on developers, not at all on end users. (More on that in a minute.) Regardless, GPL software has the restrictions that it has, but it can never become more restrictive. An upgrade can't take away freedoms that I enjoyed with an older version.

A side effect of this is that if I write a GPL program and then lose interest, and someone else picks it up and continues development, they are forced to release their version under the GPL. A new developer can't take away freedoms that I enjoyed with the old version either.

I mention this because it's exactly what happened with WordPress. It started life as b2, which was abandoned. But a year ago, a new community coalesced around a fork of the original b2, and it became WordPress. The new community included some of the original developers, and many new developers. Because the original software was GPL-licensed, WordPress was also GPL-licensed....

...I will never be surprised by the licensing of new versions of WordPress.

Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program, for any purpose. WordPress gives me that freedom; Movable Type does not. It never really did, but it was “free enough” so we all looked the other way, myself included. But Movable Type 3.0 changes the rules, and prices me right out of the market. I do not have the freedom to run the program for any purpose; I have only the limited set of freedoms that Six Apart chooses to bestow upon me....

WordPress is free software. Its rules will never change. In the event that the WordPress community disbands and development stops, a new community can form around the orphaned code. It's happened once already. In the extremely unlikely event that every single contributor (including every contributor to the original b2) agrees to relicense the code under a more restrictive license, I can still fork the current GPL-licensed code and start a new community around it. There is always a path forward. There are no dead ends.

Today, a search for “WordPress” brings up 58 million results on Google. A search for “Movable Type” brings up 46.3 million.

I give enormous credit to Mena and Ben Trott, who wrote Movable Type and founded Six Apart, which today hosts millions of MT-based TypePad blogs. The fact that Movable Type was “free enough” helped launch and continues to grow the blogging movement. I also give credit to Google's Blogger and Userland's Radio Userland (which runs on Manila, which is written in Frontier, a scripting environment created by Dave Winer, who open sourced it with the GPL in 2004).

Yet the bulk of development work around blogging (including work on syndication, tagging, outlining and other standards and practices) happens outside the corporate context. Matt Mullenweg is better known for his work with WordPress than for whoever his employer happens to be.

Here's a revealing fact: the Wall Street Journal's new blogs (blogs.wsj.com) run on WordPress.

There's a reason this column is called Linux for Suits rather than Linux for Companies. It's because Linux is about the people who write and use it, not about companies. Note the distinction Linux kernel hackers make between “kernel space” and “user space”. My beat here is the business corner of user space. I'm more interested in what people do with Linux at companies than in what “Linux Companies” are up to.

Blogs, wikis and podcasts grow naturally through the contributions of countless individuals in an environment built and enriched by work on free and open code. Non-free and non-open code can flourish there too. But it's important to remember where this environment came from. Plenty of credit is due to companies. But far more is due to individuals. It's what they produce that matters most. Not what the rest of us consume.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

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