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A Look Back at 10 Years of OSI
Pages: 1, 2

Biancuzzi: Quoting from

Our first President, having studied the history of reform movements, was much concerned that the open-source community needed leading institutions not dependent on the charisma or talents of their founding members. The single most important fact about the history of OSI as an institution may therefore be that as of 2007, the offices of President and Vice-President have rotated three times each and the Board Of Directors is about to inaugurate its fourth slate of new members.

Would you like to elaborate on these studies you did?

Raymond: There is a pattern that one sees over and over again in failed political and religious reform movements. A charismatic founder launches the movement, attracts followers, and enjoys significant successes; then he dies or leaves or attempts to name a successor, and the movement disintegrates rapidly.

One of the classic, much-studied cases is that of John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community, 1848-1881. It was especially clear in that case that its succession crisis and eventual collapse was due to over-reliance on Noyes's personal leadership. At the time I co-founded OSI in 1998 I judged that FSF would very likely undergo a similar crackup if it lost RMS, and was determined to avoid that if possible for OSI.

Biancuzzi: Had you ever considered to use a democratic process (elections) to involve more people and make OSI fans more active?

Raymond: Yes. I initially rejected that idea because I felt OSI needed to be a very lean, low-overhead organization. I believed that a democratic membership structure would give us only a marginal gain (if any) in energy or public legitimacy, at the cost of more chronic internecine political squabbling than was really worth it. I was influenced by the history of SPI (Software In the Public Interest, the parent organization of the Debian project), which has had exactly this problem. In 1998 I considered SPI a grim warning not to go there.

Biancuzzi: Do you still see the same excitement present as the end of the '90s? Or it went away with the bubble? Or maybe it evolved in something different (business, for example)?

Raymond: I don't think I have a meaningful answer to that question. I don't think my excitement about open source, or that of the people I knew, had a lot to do with the dot-com bubble. (Well, except that at least some people think I helped cause the bubble -- but not me, I think Bernie Ebbers lying about a broadband demand explosion that wasn't really happening was what fueled most of the hype.)

Biancuzzi: Bill Gates is leaving Microsoft... I guess you still are their "worst nightmare," right? :)

Raymond: I was Microsoft's worst nightmare (e.g. an articulate, marketing-savvy ambassador from hackers to business) in 1998. Ten years later they have far worse nightmares than me... Google, the open-source movement I helped create, and an increasing number of vendors shipping low-cost PCs with Linux preinstalled.

Biancuzzi: Do you think this event (Bill Gates leaving Microsoft) might affect in some way the open source world?

Raymond: Unlikely. I think peaceful coexistence with open source is impossible for Microsoft as long as they're stuck to their current business model. And I can't see that business model changing -- there aren't any plausible alternatives that preserve their monopoly profit margins.

Biancuzzi: Could a deal between Microsoft and Yahoo change this?

Raymond: I don't see how. It's more likely that if Microsoft acquires Yahoo they'll just impose their anti-open-source norms on the place. That's what happened at Hotmail.

Biancuzzi: Is the patent system broken (and needs fixing) or useless (and needs termination)?

Raymond: I'd say extremely broken, so much so that it might be necessary to terminate it and start from zero. I don't think it's useless, but I think the combination of high process costs and patent terms not adjusted to the short innovation cycle times of today are a deadly, innovation-suppressing combination.

Biancuzzi: If I think at the major commercial OSes (Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X, Sun Solaris, IBM AIX, etc) I see that they are developed by corporations in U.S.A. Maybe they are all US based because of some laws, such as software patent laws, that provide them advantages.

I don't know, but at the same time I see that some popular companies that develop free software (Novell/Suse, Redhat, Mozilla, etc), and some no-profit umbrellas (OSI, FSF, various *BSD Foundations, etc) are US based too... I start wondering if these laws actually damage the software development environment, help it, or are irrelevant.

Raymond: On balance, I think they probably damage it considerably.

Biancuzzi: How do you explain that all these initiatives related to software, yours included, are created mostly in U.S.A.?

Raymond: Culture and capital. The U.S. combines several advantages that are hard to beat. One is that we have huge amounts of capital sloshing around looking for high-risk but high-gain investments, and historically computers and software have been capital-intensive industries. That era is gone now, done in by cheap PCs and the Internet, so some of the U.S.'s competitive advantages have gone with it.

On the other hand, the U.S. has cultural traits that are very good for incouraging "initiatives related to software" and that are harder to duplicate elsewhere. Part of the emotional engine that drives really creative programmers is a secret (or not-so-secret) belief that they're smarter than almost anyone else. A culture that smashes that kind of egotism in the cradle (like, say, Japan's) can produce many programmers that are skilled but few or none that are superbly talented and driven. The U.S., on the other hand, is more supportive of that kind of individualism than anywhere else in the world. Which is why Linus Torvalds lives here now.

Biancuzzi: What are the biggest successes of OSI during these 10 years?

Raymond: We sold open source to corporations with lots of money. We taught the hackers how to get along with profit-seeking businessmen and the businessmen why they shouldn't try to change the way hackers behave or organize themselves. We taught our geeks to love the free market and the free market to love our geeks right back.

As a result, you can now get a good job doing open source. And you can buy a $200 Linux computer at WalMart. And we have powerful allies against enemies like Microsoft, the RIAA, the MPAA, repressive national governments, and anyone else with a desire for locked-down control of computers and the Internet.

OSI did that. And I think we have reason to be proud of it.

It's the turn of Brian Behlendorf of Apache fame...

Federico Biancuzzi: What was your role in 1998 as member of the Board of Directors (of OSI)?

Brian Behlendorf: My only contribution was to participate in the license approval process. Best would be to look at archives from the list around that time frame to remember specifically what I did.

Biancuzzi: If I remember correctly you worked with IBM to help them include Apache. What differences do you see between late '90s and today in the way corporations interact with Open Source projects/developers?

Behlendorf: To be clear, I was external to IBM -- still working on my day job at Organic Online -- the main thing I did was travel for one meeting in Raleigh, and then help them figure out how to be a contributor just like anyone else to Apache. But I also spent time with IBM execs explaining the business models that other contributors used, why they didn't need to fear the license (so spent much time with their lawyers on this), that sort of thing.

Back then, no major companies wanted to publicly admit they used such software, let alone publicly support it. Today you have a clear separation between two groups: companies that are supportive and let their employees contribute publicly, perhaps even driving new open source projects, the way CollabNet does with Subversion - and other companies that are still either too conservative or fear a backlash from proprietary software companies. I think the former group has a competitive advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent.

Biancuzzi: Is the way open source developers collaborate changed over time?

Behlendorf: Some things have not changed; emails on developer mailing lists are still the lifeblood of any well-run project, creating the conversational space that the other tools simply hang off of. The quality of those add-on tools has improved tremendously though - from CVS to Subversion, from gnats to Bugzilla, from Emacs (which wasn't bad) to Eclipse, that sort of thing has made a difference. IRC and instant messaging is used perhaps more than before, but it's usually used to simply educate and maybe do a bit of brainstorming. The real meaty back-and-forth of development still takes place via email, which provides the ability to participate asynchronously, and creates a history of that conversation in a readable form. Ever tried to go back and read an IRC log? :)

Mr. President himself, Michael Tiemann, answers a few questions!

Federico Biancuzzi: What is the role of OSI today?

Michael Tiemann: Concretely the OSI grows and serves the open source community as the authoritative steward of the Open Source Definition, the authoritative body that discusses and approves licenses as open source, and as one of many resources for open source reference material, best practices, policies, and strategy. The board meets monthly to discuss administrative progress (such as license approval) and to plan and discuss things we can do to help nurture and expand open source throughout the world.

Some recent, major concrete milestones on the licensing front were:

  • Reaching closure on an acceptable open source license that included an attribution provision
  • Approving the GNU GPL version 3
  • Approving two licenses submitted by Microsoft

Each of these achievements was the result of months of work, hundreds of emails, several face-to-face meetings, and a lot of careful reading, thinking, and writing. And each of these achievements resulting in large measures of both praise (for our evenhandedness) and scorn (for making a decision that went against one or more minority opinions).

We launched a new website (affectionately called version 3.0) in April of 2007, and in early January our homepage logged its 2 millionth hit. Our license listing page generates nearly 100,000 page views a month. We have hundreds of blog postings, some of which have generated more than 50,000 reads. All of this speaks to the community's interest in having a strong, independent voice that is neither aligned with a commercial company nor any specific software project.

Biancuzzi: Who is financing OSI?

Tiemann: The OSI accepts money from a variety of sources, including small donors. Our policy is to acknowledge all donations larger than $5 via electronic mail. We do not accept money with specific quid-pro-quo stipulations, but only money that is unrestricted (including no requirements to advertise the source of funds). Last year at OSCON, the OSI raised funds from over 400 individual donors, which made us very proud.

Biancuzzi: What are the goals of OSI for the near future?

Tiemann: The OSI will be holding another Board election in April, and we will continue to travel the world and speak at conferences and community events (schedule and budgets permitting). We have been talking about changing the structure of the OSI from being a self-selected organization to becoming a membership organization, but we have not made enough progress to promise any concrete changes in the near future.

If you believe in Free Software and Open Source, you can do something concrete for OSI: donate :)

Federico Biancuzzi is a freelance interviewer. His interviews appeared on publications such as,,,,,,, the Polish print magazine BSD Magazine, and the Italian print magazine Linux&C.

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