'Net ethnographer explains freeware to corporate natives

Free Netscape browser software is first step to Eric Raymond's vision of "Software in the Public Interest"

By Cameron Laird and Kathryn Soraiz

March  1998
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San Francisco (March 10, 1998) -- Netscape's January 22 announcement of the release of the source code to its Communicator browser "is only the beginning of a major phase change in the software industry." So claims Eric S. Raymond, best known as the editor of The (New) Hacker's Dictionary. A self-styled "hacker-culture anthropologist," Raymond is responsible for such geek humor as the Retrocomputing Museum and the spoof computing language, INTERCAL.

More than a mere cultural observer of the computing industry, Raymond is also "intervening to tweak" the direction of software development at large. He's on a mission to promote the virtues of "open-source software," a term he coined. It's really just another name for freeware. Or is it?

What's in a name?
In an interview with SunWorld, Raymond recapped his involvement with "freeware." "For a very long time -- 20 years -- we've [tried] to create a revolution from below." The revolution he refers to is the acceptance of freeware -- software products that "can be copied and modified without restriction." He argues that these are programs that "evolve and improve more quickly."

Raymond and others have advocated freeware both to programmers and computer users. However, this tactic of "revolution from below...failed. It was going nowhere," says Raymond. He was essentially preaching to the choir.

The hacker in the boardroom
Raymond's aim now is to work from the top down. On February 4, Netscape flew Raymond to its Mountain View, CA headquarters for an intense meeting with a focus on "how to push forward" with freeing Communicator code. Since then, Netscape has also met with Linus Torvalds (creator of the popular freeware operating system, Linux) and others to gain insight into the world of "open-source software."

Why did Netscape start with Raymond? Netscape engineers heard his paper, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," at last August's Perl conference in San Jose, CA. They took their excitement about Raymond's description of freeware development (see Resources below) back to work with them. Copies of the article and discussion of it percolated through Netscape for several months, until President and Chief Executive Officer James Barksdale decided to adopt some of its principles for his company.

This presents Raymond with "a unique window of opportunity the next couple of months." He intends to capitalize on the attention given Netscape to gain a level of acceptance for open-source software "by persuasion from above" that years of previous effort hadn't achieved.


What's in it for you?
Why should SunWorld readers care? First, if Raymond, as well as other industry sages like Tim O'Reilly (O'Reilly & Associates founder and CEO) and Richard Stallman (like Torvalds, a recipient of the 1998 Electronic Freedom Foundation Pioneer award) are right, freeware has a crucial role to play in the health of our industry. O'Reilly, for example, sees such a rosy future for freeware that he sponsored the Perl conference that so inspired the Netscape employees. In fact, it was O'Reilly himself who invited Raymond to speak at the conference.

Moreover, Communicator is a hot topic. Hundreds of thousands of us build the Web applications which are our daily work around this Web browser. It's also at the heart of the current Department of Justice case against Microsoft.

Reality and perception of freeware
If open-source software, or freeware, is so important, why did the "revolution" fail? Raymond's frustration is not with the software itself. Freeware is an undeniable technical success. It's ubiquitous and particularly prominent in the Internet world. O'Reilly likes to point out that the most indispensable pieces of the Internet are each open products:

As ubiquitous as these programs are, enumerating them still understates the pervasiveness of freeware. Many notoriously commercial properties have their roots in public research:

So what's the issue? The perception of open-source software is much different from its reality. Managers tend to associate "free" with "unsupported" and "amateur." Most executive-level decision makers think policies that ban the use of freeware protect their companies. Engineers who propose freeware technology as a component of commercial applications know what a struggle it is just to have freeware benefits considered.

Raymond's strategy
Netscape's decision to free Communicator surprised the software industry. In fact, it surprised most people at Netscape. Barksdale made the decision himself. He consulted neither his own software engineers nor Raymond -- though Raymond "most definitely" recognized several phrases from his "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" in the January 22 press release. Raymond called Netscape the next day to learn more about its intentions. Within a few hours, Rosanne Siino, vice president of corporate communications, called Raymond back, confirmed the "influence" of his paper in Netscape's decision, and told him that Barksdale wanted to talk with him.

This sequence brought Raymond quickly to the realization that he had "a powerful incentive to help out. Netscape had put [the freeware community's] prestige on the line, as well as Netscape's own future." How could he make the best of this opportunity and change widespread attitudes about freeware? He formulated a plan to get his message out at the highest organizational levels.

Raymond likes to point out that, from a software consumer's point of view, "accepting closed sources is insane." Vendors' software support is notoriously bad, and if your vendor goes out of business, you're stuck. "Independent peer review is the only way to maintain high quality," he observes, "in software as in any other kind of science or engineering." The Internet's tools work so well, he contends, precisely because they've been through the extensive peer review that only open-source software can enable. He's working now to educate large software consumers to demand this same quality.

These efforts continue what he and other freeware advocates have long done. His current innovation, though, is his work to convince development shops like Netscape's that they too can gain from producing open source.

Raymond identifies three models for business production of open-source software:

Raymond is focused on the latter. He's now working with several such vendors. The case he presents them is that freeing their source code will improve the quality of their software and reduce the expense of its maintenance. He's on the hunt for "easy kills" on this supply side that will snowball into more press attention, more releases, and more open-source successes.

What is Open Source?
Raymond knows the negative connotations "freeware" has with his target audience and is careful to avoid them. He takes this so seriously, in fact, that he has launched a branding program for the trademark, Open Source Software. The intent is to establish Open Source as a brand name with which Wall Street and corporate boardrooms can be comfortable. This positive name recognition will benefit open-source software developers. Software in the Public Interest, the non-profit group responsible for Debian GNU/Linux, is currently registering the trademark. It's also Debian that hosts the Open Source Web site Raymond and his colleagues created.

This name game disappoints GNU project founder Richard Stallman. What he sees most urgent now is to "teach users to value freedom." Stallman regards the word "free" as an indispensable part of that task, even if "freedom is an embarrassment" to some practitioners.

Future possibilities
It shouldn't be long before we all see the fruits of Raymond's labors. He has an ambitious schedule of milestones over the next year that will determine the success of Open Source Software. Most immediately, Raymond expects at least a few of hardware vendors to make high-profile announcements of open-source "widget frosting" during the coming months.

Certainly Netscape knows how to sustain public attention. Just last week it released a draft of the license it proposes for Communicator source. The prominence of this proposal, incidentally, echoes the importance of the maxim, "Licensing terms matter," which was a highlight of the conversation between Netscape managers and Raymond.

There should be more press releases over the next several months describing dozens of initiatives to label, promote, manage, and exploit Open Source Software. Will this meme propagate through the Wall Street Journal and New York Times as successfully as it has in the everyday work of software developers? Stay tuned.


About the author
Cameron Laird and Kathryn Soraiz manage their own software consultancy, Network Engineered Solutions, from just outside Houston, TX. Reach Cameron at cameron.laird@sunworld.com.

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