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Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution

Doc Searls

Issue #63, July 1999

Linux is the latest and greatest topic in a UNIX conversation which has been going on for nearly thirty years.

  • Editors: Chris Dibona, Sam Ockman and Mark Stone

  • Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates

  • E-Mail: info@ora.com

  • URL: http://www.ora.com/

  • Price: $24.95 US

  • ISBN: 1-56592-582-3

  • Reviewer: Doc Searls

First, a bit of a digression that will ultimately lead to a discussion of the book.

Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you. —Satchel Page

Comdex legitimately bills itself as “technology's main event”. This spring, it grew a second name: Windows World. So naturally, the first keynote address at Comdex Spring/Windows World in Chicago was by Bill Gates. Thousands packed the auditorium where a year earlier a Gates demo had famously crashed. Hundreds more herded into meeting rooms to see the leader of the computing world in a simulcast ironically projected by Macintoshes.

It seemed to go well. Windows and Office 2000 both looked terrific. Nothing went “boom”. Everything appeared to be on track for a pre-millennium release. When the speech ended, crowds dispersed onto the show floor which looked like a giant single-celled Microsoft animal, with the enormous Microsoft company pavilion as its nucleus. Clearly, the rest of the industry, which used to live in Microsoft's orbit, now must live within its cell wall, like mitochondria or viruses.

That's why the Linux pavilion looked like an infection. It was something odd, alien, alive, growing and already inside the cell wall. Huddled off in a corner amidst the connector-cable and small-bore peripheral vendors, the pavilion had a constant crowd that buzzed like a hive.

The entire population of that hive swarmed to the second keynote, given by Linus Torvalds. Perhaps hoping to ghettoize this group as far from the main floor as possible, the Comdex people scheduled the talk for a small basement-level meeting room. When the whole hive showed up, they hastily moved the venue upstairs to a room that seated 850 people. By the time the swarm settled, more than 1200 were spilling into the halls.

Of course, the press reported only Linus' pro forma digs at Microsoft. But the true story was more in the crowd than in the speech, which most attendees had heard before. “Linux started as this one-man project that exploded with the help of the Internet”, Linus began. You know the rest, but you might not know the whole context.

Linux is the latest and greatest topic in a UNIX conversation which has been going on for nearly thirty years. Linux also owes much to Berkeley UNIX and the unrealized dreams of the Open ethos, which at one point every UNIX vendor claimed but none practiced. A case can be made that Linux is the fastest-growing branch of the free software movement, which has been driven since the seventies by the highly principled zealotry of Richard Stallman.

At Linux Expo early this year, Eric Raymond, the Johnny Hackerseed of the open-source phenomenon, said “none of us would be here today if it weren't for Richard Stallman.” But Stallman doesn't like the Open Source label. “The rhetoric of Open Source focuses on the potential to make high-quality, powerful software, but shuns the ideas of freedom, community and principle,” he says; in the next sentence, he offers this magazine as an example. Our pages, he says, “are filled with advertisements for proprietary software that works with GNU/Linux. When the next Motif or Qt appears, will these magazines warn programmers to stay away from it or will they run ads for it?”

The answer is both. Contradiction and controversy are the stuff of stories, and stories sell magazines and books.

Now to the Book

Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution tells the Open Source story in the words of Stallman, Raymond and more than a dozen other very interesting protagonists. Published by O'Reilly and edited by Chris DiBona, Sam Ockman and Mark Stone, Open Sources is the perfect place to start understanding the deepest and most important change in the history of the software business. For all the disagreements about the particulars of Open Source, what holds the movement together is devotion to an ideal that both Linus Torvalds and Eric Raymond call “software that doesn't suck”. At a trivial level, this means “software that isn't Microsoft”, but at a deeper level it means a fundamental shift in the whole software-building trade.

This isn't an obvious matter. Eric Raymond is an unusually insightful observer, yet his understanding of open source and its virtues did not come quickly and is still highly speculative. “Encountering Linux was a shock. Even though I had been active in the hacker culture for many years, I still carried in my head the unexamined assumption that hacker amateurs, gifted though they might be, could not possibly muster the resources or skill necessary to produce a usable multitasking operating system,” he writes. “It took me three years of participation and another year to test it experimentally. Then I sat down and wrote The Cathedral and the Bazaar (CatB) to explain what I had seen.” Which was “a community which had evolved the most effective software-development method ever and did not even know it. That is, an effective practice had evolved as a set of customs, transmitted by imitation and example, without the theory or language to explain why the practice worked.”

CatB started a firestorm of talk about open-source development. Among other things, it helped convince Jim Barksdale and the crew at Netscape to release the source code to their browser. That story is also told in Open Sources by the Netscape folks.

What all these voices give us is not final truth, but code to hack. We have principles to discover here, not just to apply. “The point is that open-source software doesn't need to beat Microsoft at its own game,” Tim O'Reilly writes. “Instead, it is changing the nature of the game.”

This game is being played mostly at the server end of the client/server relationship. As Apache developer Brian Behlendorf puts it, “Open-source software has tended to be slanted toward the infrastructural/back-end side of the software spectrum.” After giving four good reasons for this, he adds, “This is why we see solid open-source offerings in the operating system and network services space, but very few offerings in the desktop applications space.”

Yet Robert Young of Red Hat describes his strategy as one intended to build a consumer market for Linux, which he pursues by purposefully advancing the Red Hat “brand” more than the virtues of its products. “The Linux OS gives consumers choice over the technology that comes with their computers at the operating system level,” he writes. In spite of the fact that the consumer market for Linux is approximately zero, Young asks, “Will (the consumer) go back to the old model of being forced to trust his binary-only OS supplier once he has experienced the choice and freedom of the new model? Not likely.”

I think this is delusional. The “choice and freedom” of this new model still floats all kinds of unfinished software that's catnip for hackers but poison to ordinary users. I lost an early draft of this review by attempting to write it in the “advanced” text editor that comes with KDE, before reading its extensive bug list. I'm finishing it off on trusty software from one of those awful binary-only suppliers.

Bob Young's branding-for-consumers strategy is plainly a brilliant one that has made Red Hat first among Linux distribution equals. It has also attracted investments by IBM, Intel, Compaq, Novell and a growing raft of old-school big boys. They want to be in on whatever changes the game Microsoft has been winning for the last twenty years.

If you want to understand this new software game, Open Sources gives you the best coaching you can get from the players who are already winning. Even in stadiums like Comdex/Windows World.

Doc Searls (info@linuxjournal.com) is a Senior Editor at Linux Journal. He also gives us marketing advice we take quite seriously. He telecomputes from Northern California—nice job if you can get it. While we have convinced him Linux is the wave of the future, we have not convinced him to learn vi.

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