Open source roundtable: Eric S. Raymond

Open source leader sees a gaping hole on the desktop big enough for open source to earn the widespread user base it deserves

Notorious open source advocate and author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric S. Raymond brings colorful acumen to any open source discussion. 

InfoWorld spoke with the creator of the Open Source Definition as part of its roundtable on the state of open source. Here's how Raymond views the continually evolving open source landscape.


Eric S. Raymond

Programmer, author, and
open source software advocate

InfoWorld: What do you see as the more pressing challenges and opportunities for open source given the current tech climate?

Raymond: Opportunity? The utter failure of Vista to gain traction even among Microsoft's most loyal users, and Apple's decision to morph into a cellphone and consumer-electronics company that has taken "Computers" out of its name. These two developments have left a huge Linux-shaped hole in the center of the OS market.

UMPCs [ultramobile PCs] like the Asus Eee PC, running Linux, are flooding into that hole from below -- consumers are actually buying them, by the truckload. We've already seen one VP at Sony publicly worrying about what he calls a "race to the bottom" because these sub-$200 machines could knock the crap out of their bread-and-butter market for expensive home PCs in the very near term. And, of course, at the high end, Linux continues to clobber Windows in comparative numbers of Internet-facing servers.

Our challenge, basically, is to gain enough market share to break Microsoft's monopoly before it can recover -- if it can. If UMPC sales keep showing geometric growth, we'll take the consumer market by storm, and Linux might very well go over 50 percent share this Christmas. Don't laugh -- that Sony VP wouldn't be fretting in public if this weren't a real possibility.

I predicted seven years ago that what would eventually break Microsoft's monopoly is PC OEMs trying to claw back margin as hardware costs drop so low that a Windows license is the biggest single item in their cost to produce. UMPCs have reached that level, and I think the rest of the PC market is going to follow them down.

IW: Where do you see open source heading in the next five years, especially with regard to development, community, and market opportunities?

Raymond: That's really too general a question to answer. It's too much like asking "Where do you see electricity going in the next five years?"

IW: Does widespread adoption and commercialization of open source software create new challenges or pressures for open source projects?

Raymond: I don't think it creates any new problems; it just changes the scale a bit on issues we've been coping with (fairly successfully) for at least the last decade. Frankly, all the "will commercialization spoil open source?" worrying that the trade press is so fond of already struck me as old and boring five years ago. Next question?

IW: What are the next steps needed for open source as a software production methodology to reach the next level?

Raymond: I think the need for languages and toolchains with provable security and assurance properties is growing acute. Though that need is not exclusively an open-source issue, the work to address it is going to have to be done in open source -- because who in their right mind is going to trust a closed binary blob?

IW: Open source now enjoys a rich and complex history, which is largely the result of trial and error over the years. What would you say have been the open source community's greatest missteps, or lessons learned?

Raymond: We made our biggest misstep back around 1985, by letting our advocacy function get almost completely captured by the Free Software Foundation. On a purely technical level, open source could have become an effective movement any time after inexpensive 32-bit PCs became available around 1987. As it was, we lost 10 years because our theory was weak and politically tainted, our community fragmented, and our propaganda ludicrously inept.

To be fair, neither I nor anybody else wanted the advocacy job at the time. But it's notable that open source didn't break out of its hardcore-geek ghetto until Linus Torvalds and I found a better story to tell about it after 1997. Did you know that the Mayans invented the wheel but only used it for children's toys? Narratives really matter; open source wasn't the first technology to languish at the margins because it hadn't found the right generative myth yet, and it's unlikely to be the last.

IW: If you could wave your wand and create the perfect software "universe," what would it look like?

Raymond: This is only an interesting question if we stick to technologies we know how to do, rather than muttering things like "strong AI solves the programming problem."

There would be two universal languages. One would be high-level, resembling Python or Scheme -- objects, rich type ontology, garbage collection. One would be low-level, like C but statically type-safe. Both languages would have strong notions of contract programming, for proofs of correctness and security properties. Either language could be used to extend or embed the other.

OSes in this perfect universe might be hyperevolved Unixes, but I think they'd more likely be capability-based persistent-object systems like Eros and CoyotOS that preserve Unix APIs as a fossil relic.

Internet-connected computing would be ubiquitous. An average person's personal property would have more IP addresses than major corporations do now, and more computing power than the entire world had in 1990. Most of that would be used in ways we don't think of as "computing" -- like, if you lost your favorite shirt you just ask it where it is.

People would remember that closed source once existed, but only in the same way that we know our ancestors were bad at sanitation and got lots of diseases because of it. They'd find the idea that closed source and proprietary protocols could ever be a good idea so obviously absurd that they wouldn't even bother to argue against it, just laugh and point.

Top hackers would routinely get mobbed like rock stars -- OK, now I'm off into fantasyland. (Actually, I've had this happen to me, and it's less fun than you might think.)

IW: There has been a fair amount of controversy, competition, and dissent within the various open source communities. Does this lack of agreement damage the long-term goals of open source, or would you like to see more of this?

Raymond: Some of it's healthy. Multiple projects competing for the same ecological niche can be spurs to each other. Some of it's not -- the amount of flamage that goes on over license choices and ideology and intracommunity politics is, frankly, ridiculous.

Evolution is messy. Free markets are noisy. Communities full of passionate people are disputatious. But these things beat hell out of their only alternatives. I wouldn't say I actually want more "lack of agreement," but I accept it as a consequence of dealing with human beings.

Roundtable home page: The state of open source

Roundtable participants
Matt Asay
Vice president of business development, Alfresco
Andy Astor
CEO of EnterpriseDB
Chris DiBona
Open source programs manager, Google
Bruce Perens
Creator of the Open Source Definition and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative
Sam Ramji
Senior director of platform technology strategy, Microsoft
Dave Rosenberg
CEO and co-founder, Mulesource
Javier Soltero
CEO, Hyperic
Mark Spencer
Founder and CTO, Digium
Robert Sutor
Vice president of open source and standards, IBM
Zack Urlocker
Vice president of products, MySQL

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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