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Open Source's First Six Months

By Eric Raymond

Six months ago yesterday as I write, Netscape announced their intention to release the source code of Navigator. In that time, we've seen once again that there are very few things as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

I'm reminded of this every time I surf the Web these days. The Open Source meme is everywhere. It seems you can't open a technical or business magazine these days without tripping over an admiring article about Linux. Or an interview with Linus Torvalds. Or an interview with...er...me.

I've ended up near the center of the crazy and wonderful things happening now half by accident. When I composed The Cathedral and the Bazaar a bit more than a year ago, I was aiming to explain the Linux culture to itself, and explore some interesting and somewhat heterodox ideas about software development. If anybody had suggested to me then that the paper was going to motivate something like the Netscape source release, I would have wondered what drugs they'd been smoking.

But that's what happened, and I found myself thrust into the role of leading advocate and semi-official speaker-to-journalists for a hacker community suddenly feeling its oats. I decided to take that job seriously, because somebody needed to do it and I knew how and nobody else was really trying very hard. (I had the advantage of experience; I'd been in this role before, for lesser stakes, after the New Hacker's Dictionary came out in 1991.)

The point of all this personal stuff is that I've had an almost uniquely privileged view of the early days of the open-source revolution -- as an observer, as a theorist, as a communicator, and as an active player in helping shape some of the major events.

We've come a long way, baby...

In this essay, I intend to do three things. One: celebrate the incredible victories of the last six months. Two: share my thinking about the battles being fought right now. And three: consider where we need to go in the future and what we need to do, to ensure that open source is no mere fad but a genuine transformative revolution that changes the rules of the software industry forever.

When you're living on Internet time, I know it can be hard to remember last week, let alone last year. But take a moment to think back to New Year's Day 1998. Before the Netscape announcement. Before Corel. Before IBM got behind Apache. Before Oracle and Informix and Interbase announced they'd be porting their flagship database projects to Linux. We've come a long way, baby!

In fact, we've come an astonishingly long way in a short time. Six months ago `free software' was barely a blip on the radar screens of the computer trade press and the corporate world -- and what they thought they knew, they didn't like. Today, `open source' is a hot topic not just in the trade press but in the most influential of the business-news magazines that shape corporate thinking.

The Economist's July 10 article was a milestone; another is coming up August 10th, when I'm told Forbes will run an explanation of the concept as their cover story.

The campaign also went after corporate endorsement of open-source software. We've got it, in spades. IBM -- IBM! -- is in our corner now. The symbolism and the substance of that fact alone is astounding.

We haven't shot ourselves in the foot...

The last six months are also notable for some things I feared early on that did not happen. Despite initially sharp debate and continuing objections in some quarters, the hacker community did not get bogged down in a loud and divisive factional fight over the new tactics and terminology. Bruce Perens and I and the other front-line participants in the Open Source campaign did not get publically savaged for trying to gently lead the community in a new direction. And nobody burnt us in effigy for actually succeeding!

The maturity and pragmatism with which the community backed our play made a critical difference. It has meant that the story stayed positive, that we have been able to present open source as the product of a coherent and effective engineering tradition, one able to sustain the momentum and meet the challenge of what the corporate word considers "real support". It has denied the would-be bashers and Gates-worshippers among the press the easy option to dismiss us all as a bunch of fractious flakes.

We've all done well. We've gotten our message out and we've kept our own house in order -- and all this while continuing to crank out key advances that undermine the case for closed software and increase our leverage, like Kaffe 1.0. What comes next?

Towards world domination...

I see several challenges before us:

First: the press campaign isn't over by any means. When I first conceived it back in February, I already knew where I wanted to see positive stories about open source. The Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, Barron, and the New York Times.

Why those? Because if we truly desire world domination, we've got to get our LSD into the corporate elite's conceptual water supply and alter the beast's consciousness. That means we need to co-opt the media that shape decision-making at the highest corporate levels of the Fortune 500. Personally, all the press interviews and stuff I've done have been aimed towards the one goal of becoming visible enough to those guys that they would come to us wanting to know the open source community's story.

This has begun to happen (besides the Forbes interview, I was a background source for the Economist coverage) -- but it's nowhere near finished. It won't be finished until they have all gotten and spread the message, and the superior reliability/quality/cost advantages of open source have become diffused common knowledge among the CEOs, CTOs, and CIOs who read them.

Second: When I first wrote my analysis of business models, one of my conclusions was that we'd have our best short-term chances of converting established `name' vendors by pushing the clear advantages of widget frosting. Therefore my master plan included concerted attempts to persuade hardware makers to open up their software.

Though my personal approaches to a couple of vendors were unsuccessful, then-president of Corel Computer's speech at UniForum made it clear that CatB and the Netscape example had tipped them over the edge. Subsequently Leonard Zuboff scored big working from the inside with Adaptec (one of the companies I had originally targeted but never got to). So we know this path can be fruitful.

A lot more evangelizing remains to be done here. Any of you who work on with vendors of network cards, graphics cards, disk controllers and other peripherals should be helping us push from the inside. Write Bruce Perens or me about this if you think you might be positioned to help; combination Mister-Inside/Mister-Outside approaches are known to work well here.

Third: The Oracle/Informix/Interbase announcements and SGI's official backing for Samba open up another front. (Actually we're ahead of my projections here; I wasn't expecting the big database vendors to roll over for another three months or so.) That third front is the ability to get open-source software into large corporate networks and data centers in roles outside of its traditional territory in Internet sevices and development.

One of the biggest roadblocks in our way was the people who said ``OK, so maybe Linux is technically better, but we can't get real enterprise applications for it.'' Well, somehow I don't think we'll be hearing that song anymore! The big-database announcements should put the `no real apps' shibboleth permanently to rest.

So our next challenge is to actually get some Fortune 500 companies to cut over from NT to Linux or *BSD-based enterprise servers for their critical corporate databases, and go public about doing that.

Getting them to switch shouldn't be very hard, given the dog's-vomit reliability level of NT (waving a copy of John Kirch's white paper at a techie should often be sufficient). In fact, I expect this will swiftly begin to happen even without any nudging from us.

But that will only be half the battle. Because the ugly political reality is this: The techies with day-to-day operational responsibility that are doing the actual switching are quite likely to feel pressure to hide the switch from their NT-brainwashed bosses. Samba is a huge win for these beleaguered techies; it enables open-source fans to stealth their Linux boxes so they look like Microsoft servers that somehow miraculously fail to suck.

There's a problem with this, however, that's almost serious enough to make me wish Samba didn't exist. While stealthing open-source boxes will solve a lot of individual problems, it won't give us what we need to counteract the attack marketing and FUD-mongering that we are going to start seeing big-time (count on it) as soon as Microsoft wakes up to the magnitude of the threat we actually pose. It won't be enough to have a presence; we'll need a visible presence, visibly succeeding.

So I have a challenge for anybody reading this with a job in a Fortune 500 data-center; start laying the groundwork now. Pass around the Kirch paper to your colleagues and bosses. Start whatever process you need to get an Oracle- or Informix- or Interbase-over-Linux pilot approved -- or get prepared to just go ahead and do it on the forgiveness-is-easier-than-permission principle. Some of these vendors say they're planning to offer cheap evaluation copies; grab them and go!

I and the other front-line participants in the Open Source campaign will be doing our damnedest to smooth your path, working the media to convince your bosses that everybody's doing it and it's a safe, soft option that will look good on their performance reports. This, of course, will be a self-fulfilling prophecy...

Fourth: Finally, of course, there's the battle for the desktop -- Linus's original focus in the master plan for world domination.

Yes, we still need to take the desktop. And the most fundamental thing we still need for that is a zero-administration desktop environment. Either GNOME or KDE will give us most of that; the other must-have, for the typical non-techie user, is absolutely painless setup of Ethernet, SLIP, and PPP connections.

Beyond that, we need a rock-solid office suite, integrated with the winning environment, that includes the Big Three applications -- spreadsheet, light-duty database and a word processor. I guess Applix and StarOffice come close, but neither are GNOME- or KDE-aware yet. Corel's port of WordPerfect will certainly help.

Beyond repeating these obvious things there's not much else I'll say about this, because there's little the Open Source campaign can do to remedy the problem directly. Everybody knows that native office applications, well documented and usable by non-techies, are among the few things we're still missing. Looking around Sunsite, I'd say there might be a couple of promising candidates out there, like Maxwell and Xxl. What they mainly need, I'd guess, is documentation and testing. Would somebody with tech-writing please volunteer?

But this is probably getting into too much detail. The important thought I'd like to leave you with is this:

We're winning!

Yes, we're winning. We're on a roll. The Linux user base is doubling every year. The big software vendors are being forced to take notice by their customers. Datapro even says Linux gets the best overall satisfaction ratings from managers and directors of information systems in large organizations. I guess that means not all of them are pointy-haired bosses...

The explosive growth of the Internet and the staggering complexity of modern software development have clearly revealed the fatal weaknesses of the closed-source model. The people who get paid big bucks to worry about these things for Fortune 500 have understood for a while that something is deeply wrong with the conventional development process. They've seen the problem become acute as the complexity of software requirements has escalated. But they've been unable to imagine any alternative.

We are offering that alternative. I believe this is why the Open Source campaign has been able to make such remarkable progress in changing the terms of debate over the last six months. It's because we're moving into a conceptual vacuum with a simple but powerful demonstration -- that hierarchy and closure and secrecy are weak, losing strategies in a complex and rapidly-changing environment. The rising complexity of software requirements has reached a level such that only open source and peer review have any prayer of being effective tactics in the future.

The Economist article was titled ``Revenge of the Hackers'', and that's appropriate -- because we are now re-making the software industry in the image of the hacker culture. We are proving every day that we are the people with the drive and the vision that will lead the software industry into the next century.

Eric S. Raymond <esr@thyrsus.com>

Copyright © 1998, Eric Raymond
Published in Issue 31 of Linux Gazette, August 1998