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Open source software braces for another big year

by James Niccolai


SAN JOSE, Calif. (IDG) -- After a year of high-profile gains for open source software, around 50 developers gathered at their second annual open source summit meeting here Friday, where they talked about where the movement is headed and how to keep it growing.

The event drew an impressive roster, including Larry Wall, creator of the Perl language; Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web Server Group; and Eric Allman, who wrote the original Sendmail program, which allows e-mail to move around the Internet.

The one-day summit was a chance for the developers to meet face to face -- many collaborate over the Internet and rarely meet in person -- and to devise ways to make open source a more visible and trusted method of software development.

Open source refers to software for which the source code is distributed freely, usually on the Internet, allowing developers to tinker with it and make improvements that can be built back into the original program. Companies such as Pacific HiTec make money by selling open source software on CDs along with technical support and other services.

The consensus at a press conference Friday evening to discuss what went on during the day's closed-door workgroups seemed to be: We've achieved a lot, but there's plenty more to do.

While the 1990s was the decade of the open source operating system, with the emergence of programs such as Linux and BSD, the future will see exciting developments in open source applications, predicted Eric Raymond, author of an influential paper on open source called "The Cathedral and the Bazaar."

The applications won't be like today's desktop software, but complex Internet applications that allow businesses to offer online services of the type offered by and eBay, said Tim O'Reilly, founder and president of O'Reilly & Associates, a publishing company that sponsored the summit.

"This is an area with a tremendous amount of innovation right now," O'Reilly said.

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One action item the developers decided on was to figure out how to turn anecdotal evidence about the financial savings of using open source software into some sort of scientific study, Behlendorf said.

"We've made a lot of claims about what we can do, now we issue a challenge to analysts to go and figure out a way to measure it," Behlendorf said.

The group also managed to find peace with the fact that open source -- traditionally seen as antithetical to the corporate way of doing things -- is suddenly being touted as the next big thing by some of the world's largest software companies.

"What we were trying to do here is to find a consensus that this was a good direction to go in and that there weren't any fundamental problems, and I think we pretty much agreed on that," Behlendorf said.

Corporate sponsorship makes it easier to distribute bug fixes and upgrades to users who aren't close to the core developer community, increases the profile of open source, and throws a bit of money in the direction of open source developers, many of whom have day jobs and program code at night, they said.

"Now, instead of sitting in monasteries writing code for nothing, people are starting to throw a few dollars at us," said Chip Salzenberg, a contributor to Perl and a director of the Open Source Initiative board.

While Linux is one of the more visible outgrowths of open source, a host of other programs -- many of which were written more than a decade ago -- provide the underpinnings of the Internet. Last January Netscape surprised the industry by turning its Communicator browser into an open source product. Since then Corel, Oracle, Informix, and more recently IBM have said they would port products to Linux.

Although both last year and this year's summits were held in the United States, open source is a truly global movement, with developers in far flung countries working together over the Internet to build programs.

"The fact that this is a very international effort is manifested in the code -- our tools have stronger international support than you will get ordinarily from proprietary software," Raymond said.

Altogether, some 50 developers spent Friday in closed workshops talking about how to bring open source to the attention of venture capitalists and chief information officers, how to work better together to improve programs, and ways to secure funding and become more competitive. They held a brief press conference in the evening to talk about the summit.

"The fact that [the summit] is happening at all, the fact that people in these sub-tribes see a need to come together and speak to each other says something in itself" about the way open source is developing, Raymond said.

More information about open source software can be found on the Web at

James Niccolai is a San Francisco correspondent for the IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affiliate.

Torvalds says Linux thinks big and small
March 4, 1999
LinuxWorld preview
March 1, 1999
Why Linux isn't just another Unix
February 2, 1999
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January 26, 1999
German developer releases free 128-bit encryption software
January 14, 1999

Microsoft develops open source strategy
(PC World Online)
Java 2 source code release: More open, but not open source
AOL pledges support for open-source browsers
(PC World Online)
Open source software for Windows NT
(Windows TechEdge)
Open source: The cathedral and the bazaar
(The Industry Standard)

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