Freeware gathers steam with first dedicated summit

Creators of Perl, Linux, BIND, Sendmail among the participants

By James Niccolai

April  1998
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Palo Alto, CA (April 13, 1998) -- The creators of some of the most widely used freeware in the computer industry gathered here last week for a first-of-its-kind freeware summit, where they called attention to the widespread use of their software and urged closer ties with the corporate world.

The group wants to dispel the myth that freeware is "a fringe thing done by hackers," and that the absence of single, large corporate sponsors makes freeware an unwise investment for businesses, said Tim O'Reilly, president and CEO of O'Reilly & Associates Inc., a publishing and software company that hosted the event.

The summit's impressive roster included Larry Wall, creator of the Perl language; Linus Torvalds, who wrote the Linux operating system; Phil Zimmerman, creator of the Pretty Good Privacy encryption program; Brian Behlendorf, founder of the Apache group; and Paul Vixie, creator and maintainer of BIND.

BIND, one of the key software programs behind the Domain Name System, makes it possible for a user to type simple URL's like "," rather than complex numerical addresses. Apache puts out one of the most popular Web server softwares on the Internet.

"You're looking at a group of people who basically make the computer industry happen, and yet is largely unknown outside of the computer elite," O'Reilly said at a press conference after the closed-door summit.

Publishing source code in the public domain is in keeping with the Internet's traditions as a medium for collaborative, constructive exchange, and can lead to faster innovation in products, the group said. In addition, subjecting source code to a process one panelist called "massive peer review" allows bugs to be detected and fixed more quickly.

Users also have the flexibility to customize freeware programs to meet individual needs. For example, versions of GIMP, an image manipulation tool which Behlendorf compared to PhotoShop, are traded back and forth by users over the Internet "like baseball cards," Behlendorf said.

"In a world where source code is open, more products will compete on the basis of features rather than brand," said Eric Raymond, a Linux developer and author of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," an influential paper among freeware advocates.

The summit offered a chance for many of the software gurus to meet face-to-face for the first time and exchange experiences and strategies for developing freeware, which they preferred to term "open source software." No concrete plans were set for future action, although workshops and virtual communication will likely bind the group together for some time, O'Reilly said.

The consensus among the group was that the extensive use of freeware on the Internet has proven it a reliable concept for widespread corporate adoption. In addition, the members urged more software vendors to begin selling freeware, packaged with customized features and services such as technical support.

"There's a fantasy out there that open source software and capitalism are necessarily incompatible, and that is false," said Eric Allman, creator of the Sendmail application.

A push for recognition from the freeware community could hardly have been more well timed, coming about a week after Netscape Communications Corp. made public the source code for its Communicator software.

Public perception of Netscape as a commercial company will not change now that the company has joined the freeware community, said summit attendee Jamie Zawinski, a member of Netscape's team, which made the software public. People will continue to use the Netscape browser for its brand name and the support and services Netscape provides. The difference is that users can now take the source code and build extensions to it if they choose to, he said.

Also at the summit were representatives of C2Net Software Inc., which has been turning a profit for two years by selling Apache Web server software bundled with cryptography and support services, according to company president, Sameer Parekh. C2Net sidesteps tough U.S. encryption export laws by integrating the security component into Apache outside of the U.S. -- something the firm could not do legally with proprietary software made by a U.S. company, he said.

Greg Olson's Sendmail Inc. has followed a similar strategy, packaging the Sendmail program with related support services. Meanwhile, Scriptics Corp. later this year will ship its first products based on Tcl, a freeware tool developed by former University of California-Berkeley professor John Ousterhout that is used for gluing together components, deploying cross-platform solutions, and embedding scripting capabilities in other applications.

The group emphasized at the press briefing that their primary goal is not to undermine the hegemony of major software houses. Nor are they looking for financial rewards for the software programs they developed, many of which have become key to the functioning of the Internet.

Rather, the group believes making source code public leads to better software, unleashing the creative talents of potentially thousands of technicians rather than a small development team.

"The fact is that software developed in an open source style will always be better than software developed in a closed, proprietary style," said Netscape's Zawinski.

--James Niccolai is a correspondent for the IDG News Service


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