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Looking Back: "Free Software Leaders Stand Together"

By Otter in Technology
Tue Dec 18, 2001 at 01:25:38 AM EST
Tags: Software (all tags)

Last May, eight leaders of the Free Software and Open Source communities issued a triumphant response to an attack by Craig Mundie of Microsoft. Their "open letter" was met with wild applause from their supporters. Less than a year later, it is interesting to reread the letter in light of the authors' current positions.

Shortly before, the Microsoft VP had delivered a speech at NYU attacking the Free Software and Open Source models, and the FSF's General Public License (GPL) in particular. Some of his comments were nonsensical (suggesting that the use of GPL software obligates a company to freely distribute anything produced with that software) and some insightful (observing that the same flood of VC money that made money-losing dot-bombs briefly seem like a good idea also propped up clearly unprofitable free software business plans).

For the next few weeks, it seemed like anyone remotely connected to the free software world was offering a rebuttal to Mundie. (A hilarious parody at Segfault.org has unfortunately disappeared in the VA implosion.) The climax, though, was the publication of Free Software Leaders Stand Together. This open letter was met with a joyous, sometimes tearful, ovation in forums like Slashdot and LinuxTo day. The letter, which combined forces from both the Free and Open Source camps, defended both sides' arguments. While making an ethical case for sharing code, it also asserted that, "The dot-coms gave away goods and services as loss-leaders, in unsuccessful efforts to build their market share. In contrast, the business model of Open Source is to reduce the cost of software development and maintenance by distributing it among many collaborators."

A couple of weeks ago, Ximian, the software company founded by GNOME leader Miguel de Icaza, announced the 1.0 release of its Outlook clone, Evolution. The company also quietly announced that it would also be selling a proprietary module to enable Evolution to use Microsoft Exchange's native mailserver protocol. Remarkably, this reversal of course by a leading Open Source advocate met with almost no comment (the Slashdot article describing the module negelected to mention its licensing terms!) and what criticism there was focused on a weak analogy of the module to the old license of the Qt library underlying the K Desktop Environment. More interesting to me was the realization of how few authors of the Rebuttal are currently relying on the business model they championed less than a year ago.

  • Bruce Perens -- The author of the letter, Perens has left his position as a venture capitalist specializing in free software companies and is now filling some nebulous position at Hewlett-Packard. Apparently one of those jobs normally filled by Ph.D.'s where the person is treated with elaborate respect and entirely ignored.
  • Richard Stallman -- The head of the FSF has been a researcher at MIT for decades. He and his organization are heavily funded by grants and awards, such as the Takeda Award he recently received. (Stallman responded to the article about his prize with a letter complaining that the journalist hadn't said "GNU/Linux.") Stallman, though, does not himself advocate free software as a business model.
  • Eric Raymond -- A few years ago, Raymond was most prominently associated with Netscape and its Mozilla project. Once that project bogged down for several years, he distanced himself and made his most prominent role the "Corporate Conscience" of VA Linux. VA Linux, of course, is now VA Software, having shed its ties to Linux and pinning its hopes for profitability on selling proprietary versions of its SourceForge software.
  • Linus Torvalds -- The father of Linux, he has worked since graduation at Transmeta, a company with an entirely conventional reliance on patents and IP.
  • Miguel de Icaza -- As mentioned, he has now apparently decided to abandon Ximian's reliance on murky plans to make money from "services" and "consulting" income. This development came out of nowhere -- in an interview here a few months ago, he replied to a question about Ximian's plans for revenue with no hint of a departure from Open Source orthodoxy. And, since the Evolution announcement, de Icaza's normally rock star-like life has taken a much lower profile.
  • Larry Wall -- Truth is, I'm not sure what he does for a living. My recollection is that he started Perl in the context of government work but I think he makes a living from it now.
  • Guido van Rossum -- Created Python while in an NIST-funded position, but now has a bona-fide "make money with free software" job at Zope.
  • Tim O'Reilly -- Publishes proprietary books about free software, gets denounced by Richard Stallman for not freely distributing them.
  • Bob Young -- The founder of Red Hat, one might quibble as to whether his company primarily creates free software or redistributes software written by others and freely distributed by them. I'll give it to him.
  • Larry Augustin -- Founder of VA Whatever It's Called Now. See Eric Raymond above.
In case anyone thinks I'm gloating, it should be pointed out that each of these gentlemen, from the aging hippie sleeping under his desk to the all-time dot-bomb king is a multi-millionaire. No, it's just interesting to see how quickly the self-assurance of the Open Source people fell apart once they had to actually put up and play. The lesson seems to be (besides that writing a new scripting language is your best shot at fame) is that it's possible to make a lucrative living by being a free software celebrity. If you lack the skill or persona necessary for celebrity, you'll probably want an academic position that'll let you pay the bills without earning any revenue.


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Looking Back: "Free Software Leaders Stand Together" | 20 comments (13 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
Open Source != Business Model (3.93 / 15) (#4)
by UncleMikey on Sun Dec 16, 2001 at 04:51:09 PM EST

I believe in Open Source. I love Open Source. I worship (well, not literally) the Elder Gods of Open Source, and have a great deal of respect for everyone in the world who contributes to it.

But none of that gets down to the fundamental question: Why should anyone pay for Open Source, when the whole point is that most, if not all of it, is entirely Free (as in Beer) as well as Free (as in Speech).

There is a current in the Open Source/Free Software community that still honestly believes that people will contribute to worthy projects, either by donation, or by paying for services and support, rather than software. And the fact that the FSF has survived as long as it has demonstrates that the donation part, at least, is valid.

But the FSF, of course, is a not-for-profit organisation. They're not trying to run a business. They're not trying to compete with the Silly Valley for programming talent. They're just trying to meet the basic costs of hosting machines and developing some key projects, and taking their talent from the pool of people who are willing to work on those projects for the sake of the projects themselves. Those people do exist; the donors do exist.

But it's not anything to base a business model on.

Part of the problem is that the entire Dot.Com Economy Myth ignored profitibility in favor of coolness, or perceived coolness. Open Source was something that was perceived as cool, (well, it is cool), so people tried to make business out of it.

Well...lots of things are cool that don't make money, or at least, not lots and lots of money. And when the Real Economy caught up with the Virtual Economy and reminded it that Economy is, by definition, about Money, it all fell apart. Both myths died together.

I still believe that Open Source has a place in the world of computing, and that its role will continue to grow. But I believe it will be from the pre-dot.com-like efforts of individuals who think projects are worthwhile, rather than the dot.com-era corporate efforts, that will carry the flag into the future.

In the meantime...well, people gotta eat. If the heros of the failed attempt to make Free and Open Source Software profitible have given into the reality of the marketplace, that's no crime. That's just pragmatism.

[ Uncle Mikey | Radio Free Tomorrow ]
Software & Economic Ages (4.40 / 5) (#5)
by _Quinn on Sun Dec 16, 2001 at 05:43:42 PM EST

It's true that Open Source (or Free Software) is not a business model, they both _imply_ one, because anyone is legally able to redistribute your bits... so if the bits are important, the market must necessarily go to the most efficient distributor (or advertiser; see Coca-Cola). Intellectual property laws allow closed-source companies to produce (artificial) scarcities of their bits, and this naturally implies the model for making money from software. (We've got bits that nobody else does!)

You'll notice something in common about "Open Source" business plans: they all target the corporate customer, who is used to signing contracts for support, more than trying to sell support to the individual, who's used to buying boxes. (And hence, boxed distributions, where the economic value is in the printed manuals and the promise of support, do OK -- because they 'feel like' a normal purchase.) That is, it would be more accurate to describe RedHat as a consulting firm specializing in Linux and leveraging its (known) expertise to sell boxes, rather than vice-versa.

So what's my point? Software has not yet joined the new economy! There are several phases to economic development. Software, like any other economy, began at the farmers & craftsmen level: the farmers (big iron) were economic backbone, and the craftsmen survived on what they could they produce that was useful to the farmers. They, along with the merchants, developed into a small middle class. Then you have the age of mass production, where hordes of just-good-enough products forced the craftsmen off the stage. Microsoft introduced this age when with its then-novel idea of licensed and closed-source software -- software as a mass-produced 'thing'. (This age marginalizes the farmers, thought they remain, as does big iron, necessary. The craftsmen retreat to academia. :)) After mass production comes the service age, where the big money is not made making things (bits) and moving them from hither to thither -- because the market has already made that as efficient as possible (hence the rash of supermarket failures) -- but in doing things for someone, where the biggest margins lie in having the best skills/knowledge.

This age hasn't (quite) arrived for software yet. The age of mass-production led to monopolies which had to be broken in order to allow the economy to progress... but with a giant like Microsoft unbroken, there's very little light down at the bottom of the forest for service companies to feed on.

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
Interesting point, but... (3.80 / 5) (#7)
by UncleMikey on Sun Dec 16, 2001 at 06:13:36 PM EST

...let's not blame Microsoft, or give too much credit, where it's not quite due. Closed-source was a successful business model before Microsoft even incorporated. AT&T had already closed Unix by then. Most microcomputers used close-source, ROM-burned OSs of varying hackability; most minicomputers ran VMS or closed Unix; most mainframes ran the hardware proprietor's closed-source OS. You could often *pay* for access to the code if you needed it, but it was all closed up tight.

Microsoft also did not invent the EULA. They've just refined it to a legalese art form.

[ Uncle Mikey | Radio Free Tomorrow ]
[ Parent ]
There is not money nor economy in OSS (4.00 / 2) (#15)
by svampa on Mon Dec 17, 2001 at 06:29:54 PM EST

As the parent comment says I do believe that Open Source has a place in the world of computing me too. but I do believe that Open Source has not a place in the world of bussiness.

Long time ago I read in slashdot the clearest points of view about OSS and money

A) It's not difficult to guess the future of bussiness that sells someting that people may get for free

B)The bussiness model of OSS is to sell support of OSS you develop. There are two differents activities. to sell support, and to write software. the former gets money, writing software is just a cost. What any serious company does is to close the department that looses money.

There are a lot of good reasons for developing OSS, but earning money is not one of them.

[ Parent ]
Larry Wall gets paid to be Larry Wall (4.22 / 9) (#8)
by Anonymous 242 on Sun Dec 16, 2001 at 09:29:44 PM EST

Just for the record, Larry Wall has a patronage relationship with O'Reilly. O'Reilly basically pays Larry to sit around and be Larry Wall.

Think of it as one of the ways in which O'Reilly pays back the community hat has helped O'Reilly move so much product.


Lee Irenæus Malatesta

Linus and Larry... (3.00 / 6) (#10)
by ragabr on Mon Dec 17, 2001 at 01:37:45 AM EST

While they may be seen as leaders, and both their projects are OSS, neither started out as proponents of it, and while I'm not sure about Larry, Linus has made it clear he made Linux Open Source basically on a whim. I'm not really sure what the whole point of this article was, but you sure should have done some more research instead of just listing the names that were familiar to you.

And my tongue would be made of chocolate. Mmmmm. Chocolate.
Larry Wall's motivation (3.75 / 4) (#12)
by Per Abrahamsen on Mon Dec 17, 2001 at 08:47:25 AM EST

He likes to describe most of his free software work as motivated by laziness.

[ Parent ]
The many motives of Larry Wall (5.00 / 2) (#13)
by grout on Mon Dec 17, 2001 at 04:43:48 PM EST

Larry's a deep guy, who doesn't bother to wait for complete understanding before setting forth on any given quest. That's why he's accomplished so much. And he never has only one motive for anything.

In other words: There's more than one reason to do it.

FWIW, I recall that one of his README files says: "I make nice things because it pleases the Author of my story."
Chip Salzenberg, Free-Floating Agent of Chaos

[ Parent ]

fool (2.00 / 2) (#19)
by streetlawyer on Wed Dec 19, 2001 at 09:09:25 AM EST

the people listed above were the signatories of Perens' Open Letter, as was stated in the article. Perhaps you should have done some research before showing off like that.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]
All millionaires? (3.83 / 6) (#16)
by mlinksva on Mon Dec 17, 2001 at 08:57:55 PM EST

each of these gentlemen, from the aging hippie sleeping under his desk to the all-time dot-bomb king is a multi-millionaire

How do you figure?

  • Perens might be a multi-millionaire, if he did well with Pixar stock and owns property in the SF Bay Area and otherwise invested wisely.
  • Stallman probably isn't a millionaire. He has won a few grants, which I don't believe sum to over a million (he got 1/3 of the ~830k Tanaka grant).
  • Raymond might be a multi-millionaire, if he sold some of his VA stock soon enough.
  • Torvalds might be a multi-millionaire, but Transmeta stock is doing very poorly.
  • de Icaza probably isn't a millionaire, though on paper his Ximian untradeable stock might be worth something.
  • Wall and van Rossum aren't likely to be multi-millionaires unless they've invested wisely for a long time. Writing books doesn't pay all that well.
  • O'Reilly, Young, and Augustin are all almost certainly multi-millionaires.

imagoodbitizen adobe unisys badcitizens
amazing (5.00 / 2) (#17)
by regeya on Tue Dec 18, 2001 at 08:32:48 AM EST

A little gratuitous Open Source bashing, with some familiar names added, is all it takes to get a majority of kuro5hin readers to vote a story up.


[ yokelpunk | kuro5hin diary ]

This didn't work out like I'd hoped (4.00 / 2) (#18)
by Otter on Tue Dec 18, 2001 at 02:36:30 PM EST

I hadn't been following the queue and was surprised to see that this had gotten posted (it was at -3 last I saw) and a little disappointed, since I had planned to rewrite the last paragraph to address what people found antagonistic.

I was hoping for more discussion to come out of it -- I think the fact that another Evolution-plugin related story was submitted while I was writing this one took a lot of the steam out of this one. Also, while I tried to avoid doing a simple Shoeboy/Streetlawyer-ish ESR bashing, it looks like it still came across that way to a lot of people.

Basically, my point is this: It was newsworthy when a number of these individuals (Perens, Raymond, de Icaza, Augustin, Young) ran around declaring that they had a better business model. It was newsworthy when they ridiculed or denounced others for not recognizing the obviousness of their platform. It was newsworthy when they and the other authors of this document further defended, not only the ethical basis of free software, but the business case for open source. It seems to me it ought to be newsworthy when half of them decide that services and t-shirts won't make their own businesses profitable within months after issuing this statement.

I just don't buy the idea that I'm being a bad sport because I don't just shrug and say, "Well, Ximian and VA need to make money, don't they?" as though the last few years of Open Source hysteria never happened.

The original business model (5.00 / 2) (#20)
by scanman on Sat Dec 22, 2001 at 02:56:04 AM EST

As I recall from before the dot com craze, ESR's original plan was for people who needed software (to make money) would hire open source programmers to customize the sofware they wrote. Apparently, that's how RMS got his start. (I forget where I read this, it was one of his speeches) So, basically, programmers would prove their worth by writing free software, hoping to be hired by someone. I find it mildly amusing that GNU existed unnoticed for years, then the dot com craze happened and everyone said, "we have to start a company about this!" because people were getting rich starting stupid .com companies selling toilet paper and stuff...

"[You are] a narrow-minded moron [and] a complete loser." - David Quartz
"scanman: The moron." - ucblockhead
"I prefer the term 'lifeskills impaired'" - Inoshiro

Looking Back: "Free Software Leaders Stand Together" | 20 comments (13 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
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