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Remembering The Dawn of the Open Source Movement

18 Feb 2018 6:00am, by

Open Source software became a movement 20 years ago this month. To mark the occasion, Christine Peterson shared a never-before-published memoir about that day in February of 1998 when she coined the phrase Open Source. The Open Source Initiative — also founded that same month — just announced new outreach programs this month, urging companies to “Share your story,” and revealing that OpenSource.Net will now “serve both as a community of practice and a mentorship program.”

But what did it look like back in 1998?

Fortunately, I was there — sort of. Just a few months later, in August of 1998, I attended the first “Open Source Town Meeting and O’Reilly Beer Bash” hosted by geek-book publisher O’Reilly and Associates. It was part of an event called “Open Source Developer Day,” in which 14 geek celebrities would eventually appear on a panel at a conference at the Fairmont hotel. There was piped-in classical music, parking valets, and a big display waited of every O’Reilly book ever written, all at a 20 percent discount. (“Wow. I own this entire section,” one geek behind me exclaimed.)

A friend of mine actually grabbed Perl creator Larry Wall — who was wearing a “Perl Institute” t-shirt — just to ask him to settle a bet. (“My friend says Perl isn’t an acronym…”) And after the event, I bumped into Yahoo co-founder David Filo, and asked him if he was ever sorry that he dropped out of college. “No,” he said, because the internet “was a lot more fun,” and being in a new industry was ultimately “a lot more exciting.”

David Filo

David Filo, photo by Mitchell Aidelbaum, by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

And I finally interrupted the geek explaining a science fiction novel to Larry Wall — who looked too polite to tell him to shut up — and Wall told me how excited he was about “Open Source” boosterism gaining momentum as a bonafide movement. “The Free Software movement rose as a backlash to commercial software,” Wall said later. “Now the open source movement is a backlash to the backlash. It’s like two planetary bodies raising tides on each other.”

Then we all piled into the Regency Ballroom for the “Open Source Town Meeting”, while Steely Dan’s “Black Monday” played in the background…

First Tim O’Reilly promised the audience it would be “sort of a real-time kind of thing,” and delivered his statesman-like message of encouraging different groups to work together. “I started to see there were a whole lot of communities who didn’t necessarily talk to each other…”

I liked how he didn’t try to specify a direction, though, showing a true geek’s faith in open-ended systems.

“The net came about as the network of networks… In a similar way what we are trying to foster is an Open Source community that’s a community of communities. When you do that, like the internet, you don’t always have a plan…

“You make connections, order will emerge…”

And then, to win over the crowd, he illustrated what he didn’t want the Open Source community to become, with a clip from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”

“Can I join your group?”

“No! Piss off!”

“I’m sure if you’ve been around the ‘community of communities’, you’ve seen that kind of behavior a lot,” O’Reilly joked. He’d wanted to deliver a message with the film clip. “We’re trying to be seen as more than a fringe movement. We’re not trying to change what people do. We’re trying to change the perception of it…”

Yahoo uses FreeBSD, Perl, and Apache servers, so O’Reilly introduced Yahoo’s David Filo. Filo lent some solid support to the Open Source boosting, saying that “Coming from the academic environment, it seems natural for us to have access to source code.” But he went even further, adding that “Without the Open Source movement and a lot of the tools out there, we probably never would’ve started Yahoo.”

And I loved Filo’s description of what happens when he tries to explain that to others in the business community, “Whaddaya mean you’re running on a free operating system?!”

But then the fun started. O’Reilly called for introductions from his panel of 14 geek celebrities, kicking off “a chance for you to interact with some of the people who are shaping your future, [an] all-star cast of people involved in the free software and open source moment.”

“I’m Larry Wall, cult leader.”

“Jim Hamerly, ‘Free the Lizard’!” [Netscape had just open sourced the code for their web browser in January]

“John Ousterhout, CEO of Scriptics Corp and chief parasite.”

“Bob Young, President of Red Hat Software. I keep the parasites in control….”

There was also someone from Cygnus (an O’Reilly “partner” in the event) and WebSphere’s product manager from IBM. But a lot of the action was further down the panel….

“Eric Raymond, Anarchist, wacko, and trouble-maker.”

“Pamela Samuelson, I’m a lawyer who raises questions, often on behalf of people in this community.”

“Brian Behlendorf, co-conspirator on the Apache Project.”

“David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo.”

Maybe we were all secretly wondering how long things would go before free software founder Richard Stallman started making trouble. And it turns out that they didn’t even get through the introductions.

“I’m Jordan Hubbard, a founder of the FreeBSD project.”

“FreeBSD abandoned the BSD license.”

Thank you, Richard…”

“I’m Richard Stallman, the chief GNU-sance of the GNU project which launched the free software movement 15 years ago….”

The FreeBSD kernel and most new code is now released under a two-clause BSD license which is approved by Stallman’s Free Software Foundation. And asked in 1998 about the lack of open source licensing for Sun’s distribution of Java’s JDK package, Eric Raymond said he and Larry Wall had actually just talked to Bill Joy, suggesting that one day Sun just might change. “Don’t bet on it,” he ended, “but don’t give up hope, either.”

Eight years later, in 2006, Sun released OpenSDK under the GNU General Public License.

But back in 1998, there were even more fundamental questions. The first thing O’Reilly asked the Open Source coders was: Why do you do it? Wall gave a good answer. “I had an itch, and I had to scratch it.” Yes, his end results were popular open source software programs, but he kicked in some historical perspective. “When I was starting out, you couldn’t do this without prevaricating. I had to consciously decide not to ask for permission to distribute…”

Wall says he’d “got lucky” when distributing his own open source projects, adding “I’m really glad to see we’re getting to the point where people don’t have to hide out to do this kind of thing nowadays.”

Larry Wall

Larry Wall, photo taken by Randal\l Schwartz, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

And later one of the panelists stopped the questioning to ask the other panel-members about employing open source coders. “Is that gonna kill the culture at some point?” they asked sincerely. “There’s some concern that maybe the profit motive is not the best incentive.”

FreeBSD’s Jordan Hubbard began the answers, saying that with FreeBSD, “Anyone who wants a job gets one” — adding that “That’s not always the best thing.” (Since there are deadlines and obligations, “You have to be extremely careful on pushing people to the employment model, that they realize what it entails.” ) Hubbard pointed out that people ultimately need a source of income, but also a level of insight to “keep your spirit alive. Keep from going to the dark side…”

“It’s a wisdom issue.”

Eric Raymond insisted that the Open Source movement won’t succeed “if it turns into another form of wage-slavery.” (Which drew some applause…) But Larry Wall shared a very poetic observation which I’ve been quoting ever since.

“Structures with human beings in them…can do amazing things.”

The panelist from Cygnus contributed his experience — that “We’ve reached a happy medium. We’ve got people on the net contributing. We have offered them money, and they have refused… They will do work for us, but they won’t work for us.”

Towards the end, Stallman — who had been typing on his laptop during the proceedings — made a plug for the Free Software movement, and insisted on drawing a hard line. “If you’re not going to make free software, it’s better not to write software,” Stallman warned, “and someone else will write free software.”

He pointed out that most Americans don’t make their money from making software, and if he needed a paying gig, there are lots of ways besides writing software that wasn’t free. “Maybe I’ll be a waiter. You’re not subjugating anybody….”

Red Hat’s Bob Young gave a nice benediction, saying we could debate endlessly about “What if John’s license is somehow evil and moves him to the dark side…” Then said ultimately, it was up to everyone in the audience to make up their own minds, and vote with their feet.

O’Reilly thanked the panel, because “These guys created an enormous amount of value for all of us,” and the crowd burst into grateful applause.

Then I left — loaded up with freebies like the “Are you Annoyed?” bumper stickers, a “Linux Journal Sampler” CD, a fresh copy of Perl Journal #10, and complete copies of S.u.S.E. Linux 5.2 and FreeBSD 2.2.6…

Those were the days.

Feature image via Pixabay.

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