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The Three Camps of Open Source
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Matt Asay has a typically thought-provoking post up titled "Free software is dead. Long live open source". He extolls the virtues of open source pragmatism, and adds his voice to other recent critics of the more ideological Free Software movement. While I like much of what Matt has to say, and I like all of what he forces us to think about, I want to take issue with some of his characterization and remind folks of the full historical context at work here.

Matt poses a typical contrast between pragmatic open source and ideological free software, as if these are the end points of the spectrum, and as if open source emerged out of free software. Specifically, he says:

"There have long been two camps within what we typically refer to as 'open-source software.' The first is led by free-software advocates like Richard Stallman (who, importantly, largely eschew the term 'open source' as not being sufficiently concerned with freedom), while the latter is led by no one, but was formally organized in 1998 by Tim O'Reilly, Eric Raymond, and others in Silicon Valley."

Actually, while the term "open source" was not coined until 1998, the roots of the movement go back at least as far, and evolved independent of Free Software. The real contrast is between Unix and GNU, as emphasized by GNU's recursive meaning as "GNU's Not Unix". And to some extent the contrast is between Berkeley and MIT.

Kirk McKusick nicely laid out the history of Berkeley Unix in his essay, "Twenty Years of Berkeley Unix"  for the original Open Sources volume. (I'll note that volume was published ten years ago, making it now thirty years of Berkeley Unix.) Part of Kirk's point is that the idea of "freeing" Unix goes back to the late 70s, and that the Berkeley Unix approach to "freedom" always meant a fairly unrestricted way to use the software, whether in an academic context (UC Berkeley), or a commercial context (Sun Microsystems).

While the term "open source" was actually coined by Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute, the three people most involved in first pointing out the need for such a term and then evangelizing its importance were Eric Raymond, Larry Augustin (then CEO of VA Linux Systems) and Tim O'Reilly. What's interesting is that Tim came at this issue very much from a Unix perspective, not a Free Software perspective and not -- I'll point out the distinction shortly -- a Linux perspective. Let me put this in context from my vantage point as an editor at O'Reilly at the time. By the time the term "open source" was coined, O'Reilly's "Unix in a Nutshell" had already sold about 10 million copies. Unix was very big business for O'Reilly, and the importance of Berkeley Unix's (by this time the three branches of Free BSD, Net BSD, and Open BSD) pragmatic approach to relatively unrestricted use seemed obvious.

What followed from the coining of the term was the very first Open Source Summit, held in Palo Alto. One thing that was fascinating to observe was that there really were two distinct camps there. Larry Augustin made sure that the Linux camp was well represented, and Tim O'Reilly made sure that the Berkeley Unix camp was well represented. And in fact these were two groups that previously had had very little interaction. The Linux guys were younger, more brash, and full of dot-com enthusiasm. The Berkeley crowd was older, more subdued, and saw the dot-com boom as just another cycle. That these two camps came out of that meeting seeing common cause and being willing to work together is a real testament to the perseverance and insight that Larry and Tim had. That they are two distinct camps has been largely obscured by the passage of time, and glossed over not just by Matt Asay but by many others.

Because who was not at that first Open Source Summit? Richard Stallman was not there, nor anyone else of stature from a purely Free Software perspective.

It's human nature to think in simple dichotomies: Free Software - GNU - GPL vs. Open Source - BSD License. But I would argue that there are three corners to this triangle: Berkeley Unix (and Apache, Sendmail, Perl, and all the other products of the UC Berkeley camp) vs. Linux (and PHP, MySQL, and all the other outgrowths of the dot-com era) vs. GNU.

Linux, in many ways, is the paradox: the most commercially successful piece of open source software, and yet licensed under the GPL. The FreeBSD guys, for example, may well scratch their heads and wonder why their equally good operating system under a more permissive license has enjoyed less commercial adoption. Meanwhile the Free Software guys rail against companies like Google that use Linux commercially without having to release their own software because technically a website isn't distributing software. The press likes to talk up GPL v3 as a shot across the bow of Microsoft. My own suspicion is that it is more a shot across the bow of Linux. Stallman can call it "GNU/Linux" all he wants, but that doesn't make it so. Linux is the third camp, not part of the Free Software camp. Not surprisingly, Linus has not taken the bait and has opted not to adopt GPL v3.

Maybe the real lesson is that the magic isn't in the license, or in the software. It's in the willingness of camps with contrasting interests to collaborate. When academics, entrepeneurs, and grass roots developers collaborated in the 90s remarkable things began to happen. Sadly, that kind of collaboration is still too much a "manual" exercise: dependent on the personalities involved, and the circumstances that bring them together. Ten years later, we need to be moving to more of a process, codified by a set of best practices.

One way to approach the problem may be under the auspices of an open source foundation, one that is dedicated to understanding and capturing those best practices and processes across projects, and across commercial open source endeavors, instead of trying to advance just one area of endeavor. Certainly that's part of what we aim to accomplish with the CodePlex Foundation.


Great Comments - Confusing Actions

asf_randy

2009-09-29 03:04 pm (UTC)

Mark, your comments are spot on and historically accurate as I have lived much of that history on the front lines...

But to your point of the failure of these groups to actually get on the same page and work together under a common process, it seems that creation of Yet Another Open Source Organization further propagates the problem.

I've become much more pragmatic through the years when it comes to the intrinsic values of software offered under a source code included license. From a consumer perspective, all software has a use license that must be complied with. All software comes with a cost to maintain that software. The REAL value of software developed in the open and provided with source code are the STANDARDS that are being supported by the software. (sidenote: We have an incredible standards problem brewing in the healthcare space. Open Standards would go a long way to solve that problem just as open HTTP protocol engine standards have helped drive a common denominator for the web)

The more the Open Source/Free Software communities fragment, the more diluted that value proposition becomes. In the true interest of delivering on the vision of Open Standards, low cost of ownership, and "freeing" the technology to support the greater good of our society, the Open Source community would be much more effective if we were to come together and find ways to drive the common mission.

That means collaborating to improve the existing state-of-the-art rather than further fragmenting the mission.

Re: Great Comments - Confusing Actions

codeplex_mark

2009-09-30 07:05 am (UTC)

Randy,

One could argue that prior to the CodePlex Foundation Microsoft was self-fragmenting with respect to open source. By that I mean that folks there didn't necessarily see a clear and consistent channel they could follow for open source engagement. Sam Ramji did a lot to address that during his tenure at Microsoft, but one person can only do so much, and force of personality is not a scalable solution.

We think (a) the CodePlex Foundation can be a meaningful bridge between companies like Microsoft and the open source community, and (b) it isn't just Microsoft that struggles with this challenge. So the intent is to be unifying, not fragmenting. Time will tell.

Re: Great Comments - Confusing Actions

asf_randy

2009-09-30 04:04 pm (UTC)

Mark,

It is unfortunate that Microsoft and others as you mention have not found people like myself that have long extended a hand to help navigate the maze. It is admittedly more confusing on the perception side than it is in reality.

I applaud the work that Sam and others have done at MSFT. The challenges for MSFT are admittedly slightly different than they are for an IBM or SUN as an example.

I wish you well and am ready to offer an objective perspective whenever asked.

How the GPL gets "business-friendly"

dmarti

2009-09-29 07:44 pm (UTC)

In practice, the GPL turns out to be "business friendly" because it _saves you an argument_. Actually making a company decision, especially a legal one, is expensive. If you use a non-copyleft license, _you_ have to decide what to do with the derivative work. In most cases, the software you're working on is not core to your business so it might as well be open source, but if you're not bound by copyleft _you_ have to decide that. Use the GPL, and you're on to the next problem, of which you probably have more than enough. It's like choosing to use the free boxes from FedEx instead of designing your own shipping box.

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