PALO ALTO, California--It's hard to get 18 iconoclastic software gurus to agree on anything, except perhaps to avoid wearing a suit and tie. But a group of legendary programmers here agreed yesterday that open source software, which already lies at the heart of the Internet, is ready for business.
Open source software, often called "freeware" or "free software," is any program in which the underlying recipe is published for all to see. Netscape Communications (NSCP) stunned the Net in January by deciding to publish the source code of its Communicator suite, which was until then a proprietary product.
Netscape's move spotlighted the open source movement, but several products, including the Apache Web server, the Linux operating system, and the GNU development toolset have gained popularity and even turned a profit for a select group of companies.
The group of gurus, which moderator Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly and Associates called an "Internet dream team," gathered here for a closed-door meeting of the minds to share experiences as well as technical and business strategies. In a press conference afterwards, the group agreed on a few principles, including the need to explore and promote the viability of making money with open source software.
"There is a fantasy that open source and capitalism are incompatible," said Eric Allman, creator of Sendmail, a server program that routes most of the email on the Net. "That is completely false."
"A lot of us here already have dominant market share," said O'Reilly, whose company publishes how-to books and tutorials for various open source programs. O'Reilly noted that much of the software that keeps the Internet running--the Perl and TCL scripting languages, Apache Web servers, Pretty Good Privacy encryption, Sendmail, the Bind program that allows Web sites to have URLs such as "www.news.com" instead of numerical IP addresses, and now Netscape's browser--is open source.
"Our No. 1 priority is making people realize we have dominant market share," said Sameer Parekh, chief executive of C2Net, which sells a secure encrypted version of the Apache server. C2Net and other companies represented on the panel said the source code model has already proven profitable for them.
Most agreed that the course of action was to package the main software with proprietary "accessories" that help the buyer install, configure, and further customize the program. Open source companies can also profit by offering for-fee technical support.
Another current ran throughout the discussion: O'Reilly and others acknowledged that open source development--a process that involves an often decentralized community that shares only a love of good code and long-distance teamwork--doesn't necessarily fit in lockstep with Silicon Valley's hyper-capitalism, which values profit over all else.
"What's odd in the computer industry is the idea of having a start-up and making a shitload of money, and that you're nothing if you can't do that," said O'Reilly.
Linus Torvalds, the Finnish-born creator of Linux, is a perfect example of the code-for-code's-sake ethos of open source development. When he created Linux and released it to developers for collaboration, Torvalds allowed certain developers to retain copyright to their contributions. In this way, Torvalds sent a message of trust that he wouldn't autocratically alter the license for his own commercial gain if and when Linux proved successful.
"It's immoral to initially release [a program] as open source, gather all the copyrights, then change it to a commercial license later," Torvalds said.
The press in attendance peppered the panelists with questions about business models and economic viability. The biggest question was whether open source software can become a trusted, mission-critical part of corporate infrastructure, with all the inherent support and technical hand-holding large companies need.
Companies need not worry about reliability of such software, panelists said, because the collaborative development process--what one panelist dubbed a "massively independent peer review"--is akin to thousands of finely tuned microscopes looking for flaws.
"Software developed in the open source style will always be better than software developed in a closed, proprietary style," said Jamie Zawinski, Netscape programmer and creator of the Mozilla Web site that houses the company's source code initiative.
"You'll do us all a big favor if you disassociate freeware from schlockware," said Larry Wall, creator of Perl.
The need for better marketing was also apparent in the panel's frustration with the press over the barrage of Microsoft questions, the gist of which was: "Can open source software be successful in the face of the Redmond behemoth?"
There are plenty of successful companies that aren't crushed or bought up by Microsoft, said John Gilmore, cofounder of both the online rights watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation and Cygnus, which sells GNU application development tools and 24-hour technical support to companies such as Cisco Systems.
The question-and-answer session with its raucous give-and-take between the press and panelists also underscored the difficulty in moving such a group to consensus. One of the most adamant pleas the group made was to use the term "open source" software instead of "freeware" or "free software." Yet the panelists repeatedly slipped back to the more familiar conventions.
Despite the call for better marketing, Netscape representatives chafed when asked how the open source strategy will help boost the company's browser market share or drive more visitors to its Netcenter Web site.
"We're not here to talk about a marketing plan, we're here to talk about building better products," said Tom Paquin, manager of the Mozilla source code project.
The meeting ended without a specific agenda for further meetings, although moderator O'Reilly said he hoped it would evolve into a series of workshops to educate developers and others about open source methodology as well as technical and marketing issues.
O'Reilly also said he hopes his company can persuade large system integrators, such as Arthur Andersen and Electronic Data Systems, to include open source products when they help corporations build network infrastructures.
Conspicuously absent from the panel was Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project. Stallman is generally considered to have an antibusiness agenda in the open source community.
Yesterday's panel members, with their ardor to explore and adopt viable business models, were quick to label themselves as "pragmatists" rather than "ideologues," with the "pragmatists in ascendance," in Tim O'Reilly's words. They suggested that open source development was merely a means to a larger, often business-driven end.
"We're not in favor of destroying corporations," said C2Net's Parekh. "Every company has its own goals, and open source is the best way to reach those goals."