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Proponents of free software movement hash out differences

Different voices emerge from open source community at O'Reilly-sponsored Developer Day.

September 3, 1998
Web posted at 2:50 PM EDT

by Robert McMillan

SAN FRANCISCO (IDG) -- After a whirlwind courtship in the trade press and an enthusiastic reception in the free software community, the backers of what is alternatively called freeware or open source software, held court last month in San Jose, CA, to try to define what they actually have in common.

The event was the O'Reilly Open Source Developer Day, an appendix to the Perl Conference 2.0 that had taken place earlier in the week. In attendance was a virtual who's who of the free software world, including representatives from Netscape, Red Hat Software, Apache, and, of course O'Reilly and Associates.

Though the atmosphere throughout the day was one of barely contained euphoria over the great strides free software has been making in the mainstream media, some divergent voices could be heard, most prominently that of Richard Stallman -- founder of the GNU Project and longtime advocate of free software.

Neither Stallman nor anyone from his Free Software Foundation was invited to O'Reilly's first Open Source Summit, held in Palo Alto, CA, last April. According to O'Reilly Software Director Gina Blaber, "The Free Software Foundation believes it's immoral to own intellectual property. That seemed like interesting ground for a spirited debate, but not on-target for the purposes of the Summit."

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Indeed, Stallman provided an interesting counterpoint to the general sense of open source boosterism at the event; his first comments to the audience were "I'm not an open source developer; I'm a free software developer." Stallman then went on to criticize John Ousterhout's Scriptics Corp. for not releasing its Tcl code under the GNU Public License (GPL). Stallman also disputed Netscape's Jim Hamerly's claim that his company was forced to discard a GPL-type licensing arrangement for Communicator because it feared such a move would create two separate development trees.

Hamerly maintained that Netscape partners who wished to retain control of their source code would then be forced into a separate (Mozilla Public License) tree from those who chose the open source (GPL) route. According to Stallman, opening up Communicator to the GPL would simply force all independent software vendors (ISVs) to write to the GPL tree.

Targeting the Fortune 500 Ousterhout, whose company, Scriptics Corp., is releasing some but not all of the software it develops free of charge, provided another perspective on the free software debate. Taking issue with Stallman, he called the GPL a "really bad idea." As he put it, "If you use the GPL," which compels developers who make improvements to GPL-licensed software to release their changes open source and free of charge to the public, "you are ruling out a class of users." This assertion was echoed by Netscape's Hamerly.

According to one developer, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution by flame mail, this "class of users" would include Fortune 500 companies, fearful that GPL-based in-house development work might be given away to competitors. "They're scared to death of [the GPL] in Fortune 500 companies," he said.

It turns out that the Fortune 500 is the very audience open source proponents like Eric Raymond most desperately wish to reach. During his keynote address Raymond cited open source stories in publications like the New York Times, the Economist, and Forbes as proof that the open source message is being heard outside of IT departments. And this message, he argued, once accepted by the Fortune 500, will then spread to IT shops around the world.

Though he predicted that open source software, helped along by 35 million lines of buggy NT 5.0 code, would "entirely turf" Microsoft NT out of the enterprise server market within nine months, Raymond did sound a note or two of caution.

For one thing, he said that if open source software will ever be widely accepted on the desktop, it will need to become more accessible to the nontechnical user. "As a culture, we tend to oversimplify the problems of user interface design," he noted.

Raymond also cautioned the crowd against demonizing Microsoft. "The thing to focus on isn't Microsoft," he said, calling for developers to focus more on Microsoft's "closed source" assumptions.

If users jump on the open source bandwagon, that's one thing, but Raymond must also convince the developer community that his open source assumptions will make them money. "If ISVs can be convinced that there's money to be made in open source," says Ian Nandhra, president of NC Labs, an ISV, "there will be a stampede to give their source code away." But Nandhra isn't convinced that the open source model will necessarily catch on. In order for ISVs like himself to become interested, Raymond, et al., will need to come up with "a concrete business case to how the open source model will fuel commercial growth."

Despite the fact that there is a growing roster of companies that have claimed the open source affiliation -- Red Hat, Cygnus Solutions, even a group of Spyglass refugees calling themselves AbiSource (they released alpha code of the world's first open source word processor at the event) -- it still seems early to claim, as some open source proponents do, the arrival of a new age of software development.

But with Linus Torvalds on the cover of Forbes and IBM selling Apache Web servers, these are most certainly interesting times.

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