Open Source is on a Roll

Copyright (c) 2000-2001 by Rich Morin
published in Silicon Carny, August 2000


Good technology, adroit promotion, and some very helpful buy-ins are helping to make Open Source a plausible option for both users and vendors. Rich speculates on how we got here and where things might go from here.

Back in 1984, the fortunes of free software did not look good. Proprietary operating systems were the only game in town. Proprietary add-on packages were seen as bringing a wealth of nifty computer technology to the masses.

Few users were interested in issues of source availability; they just wanted affordable and usable software. Even fewer vendors would consider the idea of giving away their source code. Even the freeware of the day was typically available only in binary form.

Consequently, Richard Stallman's GNU (GNU's Not Unix) Project was greeted by polite skepticism and rank sarcasm. A bunch of volunteer hackers were going to duplicate the entire Unix operating system? Please. Nonetheless, Stallman and his followers persevered, writing hundreds of utilities and library routines. At the same time, academic and research hackers were busily enhancing Unix, despite the fact that AT&T appeared to own the results. Eric Allman's sendmail, Bill Joy's vi, and Paul Vixie's bind joined countless other pieces of add-on software, greatly enhancing the power of the Unix system.

A decade of development later, Stallman's dream was mostly realized. Two distinct families (BSD and GNU/Linux) of free operating systems had become available. BSD, broken free of AT&T's control, developed out of Unix add-ons. GNU/Linux used Linus Torvalds' kernel, made useful by the GNU tool set and assorted other packages.

The entire infrastructure of the Internet, as well as many of its constituent machines, ran on free software. Complete, powerful, and reliable systems were assembled out of inexpensive PC components. Anyone could play, and many did. Unfortunately, free software still got no respect. Neither large corporations, the media, nor the public gave the free software movement credit for its accomplishments, let alone recognition as a legitimate alternative to proprietary software.

Better promotion was needed, so Tim O'Reilly invited a small band of key developers (Allman, Behlendorf, Vixie, Wall) to sit down for a day-long summit meeting. By the end of the day, the participants had agreed to shake things up a bit.

Enter open source

Largely at Eric Raymond's behest, the group adopted some new nomenclature to describe their activities. Free software, although ideologically appealing, was just too confusing as a label. Libre also had problems. So, with assorted reservations, the participants adopted the term open source. I'm not sure that anyone, even Eric, felt that the name change would make much of a difference, but they decided to try it. Promoting open source to Main Street, let alone Wall Street, was going to be hard enough; promoting free software simply wouldn't have a chance.

The press briefing that followed demonstrated how far the movement had to go. The press wanted to know when this software would start to show up (it's already running the Internet, guys), whether it would take on Microsoft (ask us later...), etc. The reporters wanted sound bites and a simple story, the hackers wanted to provide technical accuracy. I'm not sure anyone walked away from the press briefing happy, but the long-term results of the meeting have been most gratifying.

Open source rising

Although some open source-based businesses existed before the meeting, many have emerged since then. Some have had noisy and exuberant IPOs, briefly gaining national press coverage, while others have quietly persevered, serving customers and growing their businesses.

The result is that open source businesses are no longer considered implausible. A given venture may or may not make business sense, but the overall concept has been shown to work.

Meanwhile, Tim O'Reilly and Eric Raymond, among others, have continued to promote open source. Predictably, they have also caught some flak for this. Who are these guys and what gives them the right to speak for all of us? I don't have a lot of sympathy for this sort of carping. These folks have been willing to stand up to the mikes, eloquent in the face of large and sometimes hostile audiences, and extremely energetic in promoting the open source story.

Meanwhile, the results are starting to roll in. Every week seems to bring another story of an open source offering. From Apple, to Netscape, to The Open Group, to Sun, companies and organizations seem to be moving in the right direction.

Sun's recent announcement regarding StarOffice is particularly interesting. Here is a company which has been promoting "not quite open source" licenses for Java and Solaris. I listened to their reasons for the SCSL, but was unimpressed. They simply didn't get it and I didn't see their license meshing well with the independent nature of volunteer developers.

Sun's use of the GNU GPL for StarOffice, however, shows they're capable of a real open source release if it meets their needs. Furthermore, their announcement makes it clear that they're not abandoning StarOffice. Instead, they plan to devote dozens of highly-paid engineers to its continued development. The combination of a full-time staff with hordes of volunteers can be very powerful. The staff ensures consistency, performs boring tasks, and generally keeps things together. The volunteers, meanwhile, crawl out on limbs and sometimes bring back fruit.

Similarly, community-wide infrastructure like SourceForge conserves the limited time of volunteer developers. If they don't need to maintain their own servers they can spend more time fixing bugs and adding features. And despite that fact that SourceForge has Linux roots, they are quite open to projects that are focused on other operating systems.

Consequently, I am very optimistic about the prospects of open source software. I don't see it supplanting Microsoft, but I do see it carving out a substantial niche for itself. Should be fun...

Resources

GNU Project
http://www.gnu.org

Open Source Initiative
http://www.opensource.org

O'Reilly & Associates
http://www.oreilly.com

SourceForge
http://www.sourceforge.org

StarOffice
http://www.openoffice.org

Sun Microsystems
http://www.sun.com
      

About the author

Rich Morin (rdm@cfcl.com) operates Prime Time Freeware (www.ptf.com), a publisher of books about Open Source software. Rich lives in San Bruno, on the San Francisco peninsula.