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Friday, January 29, 1999 Published at 16:35 GMT


Sci/Tech

The odyssey of Open Source software

Eric Raymond has Microsoft in his sights

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall
It was a hot ticket on a cool subject presented by a lightning conductor of the Open Source movement.

Eric Raymond's Winter Tour is now officially over but the struggle to free program code all over the world goes on.


Eric Raymond on Open Source
The evangelising American's Open Source gospel "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" persuaded Netscape to abandon secrecy and proprietary ways and release its browser code on the Net a year ago. He believes the geek will inherit the earth and not Microsoft.


[ image:  ]
He took to the road in January to spread the word, his two-week tour taking in speaking engagements in Michigan, Oregon, California and Indiana, then onto London and Durham in the UK and finally Denmark and Sweden, where he addressed the world's biggest Linux users' group.

The hackers' revenge

On a visit to the Greenwich Royal Observatory to see the beginning and end of world time, Eric told BBC News Online that the clock had turned full circle for the communities of clever programmers. He calls them "hackers", but in the true sense of the word as defined in his book, The New Hacker's Dictionary.


Revenge of the hackers
"What's happening now is the hackers' revenge. That culture is coming back around and this time we are going to win," he said.

The first time dates back to the development of the Personal Computer Operating System (OS) and how Windows won through. The hackers' favourite OS, Unix, disintegrated into many different versions with their own proprietary features. Windows and its predecessor, MS-DOS, was equally proprietary but was marketed successfully as the best single solution for business.


[ image:  ]
Now the battle between the expensive proprietary software of companies such as Microsoft and freely-distributed Open Source is raging on the Internet.

"Microsoft will either be beaten or have to join us," he said. "At minimum, they will have to implement a Linux-compatible API [an Application Program Interface which would eventually allow you to run Windows-based programs on Linux]"

Linux gives Microsoft a Halloween scare

Linux is the Operating System developed by the Finn Linus Torvalds when a student at Helsinki University, taking the heart of the Unix OS, its kernel, and building a purer architecture around it.

Eric lauds the "bazaar" approach that Torvalds went on to perfect: programmers beavering away all over the world to improve the source code he had developed and distributed and spotting and fixing bugs for him. Torvalds released new versions of Linux early and often and treated his users as co-developers.


"Microsoft can't beat, could join us"
The result has been an extremely reliable operating system whose incredible growth in popularity is worrying Microsoft.

"OSS [Open Source Software] poses a direct, short-term revenue and platform threat to Microsoft - particularly in server space," said an internal Microsoft memo leaked in October to Eric and dubbed the Halloween document.

"The ability of the OSS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing. More importantly, OSS evangelization scales with the size of the Internet much faster than our own evangelization efforts appear to scale."

The Cathedral versus the bazaar approach

Eric cites the statistics: "Linux gained 212% in market share last year, it's now at 17% of the business market, and it's doubling every six months now. The market share of the dominant web server, Apache, is pushing 59% and it is Open Source, and all the other Web servers, the proprietary Web servers are failing, they're falling out of the market."

Eric sees Microsoft's "cathedral" approach of building a proprietary, complicated architecture in isolation as fundamentally flawed.

His paper quotes the aircraft designer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "Perfection [in design] is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away."

He adds in the interview: "The only critical proprietary resource is the brains of your people, everything else is illusion. The key point is that making things proprietary actually destroys value rather than creating it."

On an engineering not moral crusade

Eric's reasoning on Open Source inspired Netscape to release its browser's code over the Internet and his pragmatic approach, emphasising the reliability of the software, has encouraged major names such as Intel, IBM, HP, Corel and Caldera to support it.

He differs from his friend Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, who feels idealistically the movement is more a question of freedom than price.

"We've had a lot of problems in the past with advocates who were on too much of a moral crusade and not concerned enough with practicalities, so I'm after good engineering outcomes. We've finally found a way to get the message out.

"Beating Microsoft would be sort of a virtuous side effect of what we're really after which is to produce high-quality software which is available to a lot of people."

The business models of Open Source

His next paper, The Magic Cauldron, will detail the economic and business models for Open Source. He gives four models for making money:

  • Support Sellers Companies can give software away for free but make money on services such as after-sales.

  • Loss Leader The software is given away free with the aim of supporting the sale of other related software.

  • Widget Frosting Hardware makers make their drivers and interface tools Open Source to save them the costs of working out bugs and improvements to the software.

  • Accessorising Selling accessories such as books, compatible hardware and complete systems with Open Source software pre-installed.

"Software is actually a service industry and we need to learn to think explicitly in those terms of selling services.

"Some Open Source infrastructure will eventually dominate computing I'm sure, and Linux seems like the fairest bet at the moment."

UK looks at Open Source for e-commerce

Eric spoke at the Linux Open Source Software Conference, organised by Eddie Bleasdale of netproject, who built the first UNIX computer in Europe in 1981.


[ image: Bleasdale: Open Source for e-commerce]
Bleasdale: Open Source for e-commerce
Eddie is convinced that Open Source will be the catalyst that changes the computer industry.

"Linux is the basis for building stable, reliable systems for e-commerce," he says.

"Windows NT [ the Microsoft operating system favoured for Web server and business use] became dominant because the oppositon was divided. Linux is not forking. Linux will define the API for every other version of Unix and we will win when the Linux API is imported onto Windows NT."

Open standards "more important"

Speaking at the same conference, Professor Peter Murray-Rust, who was on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) working group developing the Extensible Mark-Up Language (XML), said open standards were even more important than Open Source on the Web.


Peter Murray-Rust on open standards
He said he was hopeful that companies, including Microsoft, would not hamper progress with proprietary extensions:

"Microsoft have taken a very active lead and they have stuck very closely to the current standard," he said.

"Where you will see a lot of creative tension on the Web is the fact that people want to move very fast and it takes time to develop these standards. So I think you will see a variety of manufacturers anticipating what's going to happen.

"Whether we can manage everything with open standards, I don't know. At the moment, I'm very excited at the way people are working together on this."



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