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Into the Belly of the Beast

By Norman M. Jacobowitz

ESR goes to Microsoft ... and lives to tell about it!

It was not a normal day here in Seattle. Eggs were balancing on end. The city was shrouded in a most un-summerlike mist and fog. And ESR was speaking at Microsoft.

That's right. Eric S. Raymond was the invited guest of Microsoft Corporation, and gave a speech to their research group. June 21st was indeed a freaky Summer Solstice day here in the Northwest.

Eric went into the belly of the beast ... and lives to tell about it. He was kind enough to share his impressions of what went on, via this e-mail interview.

Q: Can you give us a general overview of how and why you came to be invited to speak at Microsoft's Redmond campus?

A: I was invited there by a member of one of Microsoft's research groups that I met at PC Forum 99. She seemed OK, and offered an inducement far more interesting than a speaker's fee (about which more below) so I accepted.

Q: Were you offered a tour of the campus, and/or were you introduced to any of the "big name" executives of Microsoft?

A: No campus tour, no big names. Though I suppose they might have been watching the video feed....

Q: What was the venue like, and how many people showed up for the event?

A: It was a small auditorium. It looked to me like about 200 people showed up; it was standing room only, with people stacked against the walls and sitting in the aisles.

Q: What were the general themes of your speech/presentation? How were they received?

A: All the usual ones for anyone who has heard my talks. Better reliability through peer review, how Linux beat Brook's Law, open-source project ownership customs and the reputation incentive, the eight open-source business models, scaling and complexity effects.

Q: A confidential informant tells me the event was broadcast to all 20,000-plus Redmond employees of Microsoft over their internal network. This same informant also says a fair percentage of those in actual attendance became somewhat belligerent towards you and your Open Source message. Is this true? If so, would you mind elaborating on which parts of your presentation they took issue with? For example, were they most perturbed at the insinuation that Open Source products like Linux are better in the long run than proprietary systems like MS Windows 2000?

A: Yes, there were a few belligerent types. Typical was one guy who observed that Oracle has a partial open-source strategy, then triumphantly announced that Microsoft's earnings per employee are several times Oracle's, as though this were a conclusive argument on the technical issues.

It was kind of amusing, really, fielding brickbats from testosterone-pumped twentysomethings for whom money and Microsoft's survival are so central that they have trouble grokking that anyone can truly think outside that box. On some subjects, their brains just shut down -- the style reminded me a lot of the anonymous cowards on Slashdot.

One of the Microsoft people, who knew the faces in the audience, observed to me afterwards that the people from the NT 2000 development group were particularly defensive. So, yes, I think my insinuations were perturbing.

Q: Did you notice an overall "mood" or general level of receptivity held by attendees towards what you had to say?

A: More positive than I had expected. The flamers were a minority, and they occasionally got stepped on by other audience members.

Q: Anything else interesting to report from your Microsoft visit?

A: Yes. One of its co-authors gave me an autographed copy of "The Unix-Hater's Handbook" :-) But that doesn't quite mean what you think it does -- I had been one of the manuscript reviewers.

Q: Of course, many may gather that perhaps the most fun and exciting aspect of your visit was your dinner with science/speculative fiction authors Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson. Was that as fun as it sounds to the rest of us?

A: Sure was. Those dinner plans were what seduced me into going to Redmond, and I wasn't disappointed. George Dyson (author of "Darwin Among the Machines", and Esther Dyson's brother) was there too. We spoke of many things; science fiction and AI and Turing-computability and cryptography. Oh, and Neal solicited my advice on the proper firearm for dealing with cougars while hiking with his kids.

Belligerent Win2k developers. An outspoken advocate of Open Source. Put them together in a room, and what do you get? Rumor has it there were fireworks. Who knows what galactic alignments were knocked off kilter -- it was the Solstice, after all. We'll never know exactly what happened over there, at least until a sympathetic mole over in Redmond e-mails us a RealVideo/MPEG copy of ESR's speech. Illiad's User Friendly offers us some food for thought.

Thanks very much to Eric S. Raymond for sharing his Microsoft experience with the Linux/Open Source community.


Matthew Dockrey offers his eyewitness account of ESR's Microsoft speech.

Monday morning, a friend of mine at Microsoft mentioned he got a mailing about the ESR presentation and thought he would swing by. Being an opportunist, I convinced him to sneak me in. Luckily, they weren't checking badges at any point. Considering how much they value trade secrets, their security is really quite lax.

The presentation was in a conference room in Building 31 (Research). It was far too small for the turnout, although my friend reminded me that this was supposed to be for just the research group. Getting there 20 minutes late after missing the bus, we were left trying to catch a peek through the crowd. There was a live video feed as well, and we ended up watching the first half from 10 meters down the hall on someone's computer.

The audience was a very odd mix. Most of the people seemed very serious and were even taking notes. I did notice someone with a KMFMS t-shirt, though. Some were very obviously hostile towards the Open Source approach, but not all. (Not everyone who works at Microsoft actually uses their products at home, remember.) On the way to the presentation, I saw an office with Linux Journals and O'Reilly Linux manuals laying about, so not everyone there is ignoring us.

Overall, it was a good presentation. I was generally impressed with ESR's skills as an orator. He spent most of the time giving a sociological explanation for why OSS works, or exists at all. Nothing all that revolutionary (to us): Open Source is a variant of the "gift-culture" that often forms when groups of people are not greatly bounded by material limitations (such as coastal Pacific Native Americans and really rich people) and therefore take to giving away wealth as demonstration of their worth. He also detailed the culture of Open Source projects, the general patterns and taboos (a project is owned by someone; you don't fork the project unless you have very good reasons, etc.) and compared this to territoriality, especially the way we view land ownership. You can homestead land (start a project), buy land (have the previous project owner give it to you) or squat on unused land (take over a long-idle project).

I felt the presentation lost a bit of its focus when he moved from the abstract sociological viewpoint to actual justification for Open Source in a business model. I think this was largely because he based some of his arguments on sweeping claims about OSS being generally better than proprietary, and the audience challenged this. His point would probably have been better made without being quite so confrontational here.

He did make a very good point that 95% of software development is for internal use only, although there was an amusing moment when his survey of this particular audience did not reflect this. He also touched on the fact that most revenue from software is based in support, not the original sale. He mentioned what happened with Zope, but failed to pursue it. Of all the business arguments for OSS (and I admit I lean towards RMS's moralism over ESR's practicality), this seems to be the most relevant.

Overall, it was a very good presentation, and the audience seemed generally receptive to his ideas. There were some good-natured laughs on both sides, such as ESR admitting that most of the gift cultures had been destroyed by disease, or ESR stating a desire to live in a world "where software doesn't suck" as a valid reason for working on an OSS project. I found it particularly amusing when, halfway through the presentation, someone started handing out freshly printed copies of Sunday's User Friendly comic.

Copyright © 1999, Norman M. Jacobowitz
Published in Issue 43 of Linux Gazette, July 1999