Open source flexes its muscle at OSCON

David Berlind: Open-source leaders are speaking out about the future of the software at a conference reminiscent of the early days of the PC revolution

"We really love Portland. This city has worked out really well for us." That's what O'Reilly & Associates chief executive and president Tim O'Reilly told me as he rushed between engagements at the O'Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON) here in Portland, Oregon. The fact that almost 2,000 people made the pilgrimage to this corner of the United States and paid $1,100 to attend a relatively small event while big-name shows in more central locations and with virtually no admittance fees have been duds is testimony to the maturity of an ideology well beyond trend status.

Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, was comparing open source to cockroaches as he explained to my 13-year-old son the simplicity of open source, why it has caught on with such rabid intensity, and why the buzz was undeniably vibrant here at OSCON '03.

"Cockroaches like dark places where no one can find them," said Raymond, widely regarded as the father of the open-source movement. "Commercial software is full of dark places that only a few people are allowed to venture into. As it turns out, commercial software is full of bugs and security problems because these cockroaches are hiding in these dark places that rarely get visited. Open-source software, on the other hand, doesn't have any dark places for the bugs to hide. It's open for everyone in the world to come in and rout the bugs out. As a result, more and more organisations are beginning to realise that the quality of open-source software very often exceeds that of proprietary software."

Most interesting to me is that Raymond didn't even mention the cost factor. After some prodding, Raymond acknowledged that the acquisition costs (free in many cases) as well as lower expected total cost of ownership make for a very compelling story when it comes to alternatives to proprietary software. "One of the reasons this conference has the buzz it does," continued Raymond, "Is that people will naturally gravitate towards alternatives with a lower long-term cost of ownership when money is tight -- especially if there are no compromises in quality when compared to the alternatives."

Quality was one of his key messages. The cost factor has typically enjoyed the limelight in any discussion of open-source benefits. This shift from cost to quality was consistent with the mood here at OSCON. Open source is not only a force to be reckoned, but a more mature force that has maintained its early passion while dispensing with the arrogant rants that did it a disservice for so long.

These days, if anyone is ranting, it's the establishment (read: Microsoft) that now takes the threat very seriously. Within open-source circles, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer's derision of Linux is legendary, as are "un-American" characterisations of open source credited to Microsoft executives Craig Mundie and Jim Allchin.

Nevertheless, Microsoft Shared Source Manager Jason Matusow was here at OSCON giving some legitimacy to Raymond's cockroach analogy. Under the auspices of Microsoft's shared-source initiative, the company has been opening up its source code for review by organisations such as governments that may have security or quality concerns and that are looking for some reassurances that the code will survive the rigors of their environments.

Microsoft wasn't the only traditionally proprietary software provider in attendance. RealNetworks was here, but with a different message. Facing intense competition from Microsoft, RealNetworks sees open source as a key to its growth. About a year ago, the company donated its core media playing source code to the open-source community. But this year, under the moniker of RealNetworks' Helix Community, the company took its involvement in open source to a new level by open-sourcing the rest of the intellectual property that developers need to make multimedia content interactive with links, text, and graphics that are synchronised with the content being displayed in the client.

"In order to go from an installed base of 335 million clients to a billion installations across all platforms and operating systems, we had to open-source the code," said Real Networks' Kevin Foreman. If the installed base grows to a billion, as Foreman hopes, Real stands to pick up a significant amount of business from developers who need the tools and servers for creating and delivering interactive, Web-based multimedia content.

Another sign of open source's maturity was the official theme of this year's OSCON: "Embracing and Extending Proprietary Software." Proprietary software is no longer open source's Antichrist. The open-source movement has recognised, perhaps with leadership help from visionaries like O'Reilly, that the most likely outcome in the battle between open source and proprietary software isn't the annihilation of either combatant, but rather, a peaceful co-existence. Both have their places in the world and offer unique benefits that any consumer of either can benefit from, often simultaneously.

That notion of embracing and extending was echoed in the comments of Ximian chief technology officer and co-founder Miguel De Icaza, who has achieved hero-like status in the open-source world for his efforts to create an open source-based clone of Microsoft's .Net. In describing the progress of that project -- called Mono -- De Icaza kept telling me how much he loved .Net. De Icaza's aspiration for Mono is to give developers of .Net applications (presumably ones who use Microsoft's Visual Studio) an open source-based alternative platform upon which to run those applications. De Icaza's goal is for a .Net-based application to be completely portable to an open-source stack, and he claims that Ximian is about one year from achieving that goal.

An equally important indicator of how far open source has come is the maturity of the open-source software stack. When the O'Reilly conference first got going, it was primarily a gathering of devotees to the Perl scripting language. If you could come up with an acronym for the stack in those days, it was simply "P" for Perl. Today, the "P" has given way to Lamp -- for Linux-Apache-MySQL- Perl. In deference to other "P's," both Raymond and O'Reilly say it's OK to substitute Python or PHP for Perl when explaining what Lamp means. More importantly, the acronym's evolution reflects open source's development from a selection of point solutions to a more a complete stack capable of competing with proprietary alternatives.

As evidence of this, O'Reilly cites the fact that some of the world's most killer applications -- Google and Amazon -- are powered by an open-source stack. O'Reilly uses Google and Amazon as examples to debunk criticism that deploying an open-source stack is difficult. "The usability of open source," says O'Reilly, "isn't about comparing how difficult it is to use Gnome versus Windows or the Mac. You can put any user interface you want on the stack. Google and Amazon are perfect examples that are powered by Linux and Apache and that are used by millions of people. That is the new software model, that's where we're heading, and open source is a key component of this revolution."

Meanwhile, on the show floor, another warm and fuzzy aspect that has the industry snuggling up to open source is the sheer accessibility to the key players and celebrities. In the proprietary world, software executives are rarely seen hobnobbing with us mere mortals. At OSCON, the chances that you'll be rubbing shoulders with someone like Eric Raymond, Tim O'Reilly, Miguel De Icaza or former Lotus chief executive and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder Mitch Kapor is extremely high. These folks are happy to speak sincerely and privately with anyone willing to listen.

That attitude is reminiscent of the early days of the PC revolution, and we all know where that led.


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