Interview with Eric S. Raymond

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From: Linda (
Date: Thu May 18 2000 - 01:26:35 PDT

An interesting interview on the benefits of an open source business

An Interview With Eric S. Raymond
by Bryan Morgan

Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral And The Bazaar paper galvanized the
open source community in 1997 while it simultaneously turned the
mainstream computer industry's structure on its ear. Raymond argued
effectively that a loose organization of talented developers bound by
a common goal (referred to as "the bazaar") could produce
higher-quality software than well-funded organizations could in their
"cathedral". As if to prove his thoughts correct, the open source
community has responded in recent years by producing powerful
software products used across every country and every vertical
category. These products include the Apache Web Server (60+% market
share), the Linux operating system (currently over 30% Internet
server market share), and widely used programming languages such as
Perl, Python, and PHP.

From our vantage point, it seems but a matter of time before the open
source community focuses its efforts upon mobile devices and
applications, so we thought it would make sense to speak to one of
the community's leaders. Never one to shy away from a thoughtful
discussion, Mr. Raymond was kind enough to take time out to discuss
the open source software movement and his thoughts on the future of
mobile computing.

WDN: For starters, what are your thoughts on emerging mobile
technologies such as WAP, location-based services, and Bluetooth? Are
you excited about the possibilities? Any reservations or doubts as to
their potential?

I'm excited about the potential of wireless broadband, of
constantly-on Internet access that you can carry with you. So I think
Bluetooth is very cool, and I'd be friendly to location-based
services based on open standards.

On the other hand, I'm not thrilled by what I hear about WAP. It's
too limited, and it's essentially a vendor-controlled proprietary
gloss on HTTP. No thanks. Just give me TCP/IP and let me decide what
I do withit.

WDN: Do you use any of these technologies yourself (i.e. Palm, WAP
phone, etc.)?

A friend gave me a Palm III. I don't use it; I travel with a Sony
VAIO instead. Basically, if I can't write code and handle email with
a device, I'm not interested in carrying it around.

WDN: Are you still coding? If so, what tools or products have
impressed you most recently?

I am definitely still coding. I'm enjoying my VAIO 505TR a lot. I'm
doing a lot of hacking in Python (the open-source scripting language
for when you outgrow Perl). And I've been a big fan of the Logitech
line of optical trackballs; they have true elegance.

WDN: While most server admins and Web developers are very familiar
with open source projects by now, talk of this type of development
is new to the wireless industry. Would you mind briefly explaining
the advantages to this development methodology and how commercial
companies can develop revenue streams from open source products?

The biggest advantage of open-source development is the peer-review
effect. You get super-reliable code. You also get customer trust
because they know you're following good practice -- and that they
can't be locked into bad choices by closed code.

Commercial companies can reap huge market wins from open-source code
in several ways. One is by being a supplier that builds
infrastructure around open source and open standards. You'll clobber
yourproprietary competition, in the same way that and for the same
reasons thatTCP/IP clobbered proprietary wide-area networking in the
early 1990s -- and the same way Linux is clobbering Microsoft in
servers and Internet appliances now.

Another is by hooking up to an existing open-source infrastructure
and selling services and content over it. Anybody who does business
over the Web is executing this model. Over 60% of the Web is served
by Apache, the open-source webserver. E-commerce is getting huge
exactly because nobody (not even Microsoft) can put proprietary
roadblocks on the information superhighway.

WDN: What significant issues do you see that still stand in the way
of open source projects?

Submarine patents held by hostile closed-source vendors could turn
into a nasty problem. Other than that it's basically all a question
of perception -- corporate America is still getting to grips with the
idea that open source is an economic win. There's still a bad
tendency out there to overprotect supposedly valuable intellectual
property that is really just a ball and chain dragging on your
potential growth -- to believe you're in the secrets business when
you're actually in the smarts and service business.

WDN: PDA/Handheld operating systems are very proprietary in nature
and offer unfamiliar, closed APIs to developers. From my vantage
point, this space seems to offer open source developers a unique
opportunity for two reasons. First, they won't have to compete
against an entrenched operating system. Second, a modular OS like
Linux could offer a set of common APIs across platforms(from PDA to
desktop to mainframe). Are open source companies interested in
aggressively pursuing this space?

I think if you were a PDA manufacturer that Red Hat or Corel or
Caldera would be more than happy to help you port Linux and then
maybe co-brand or Linux-brand the device. This kind of thing could be
a big win-win-win for developers, customers, and vendors alike. I
expect to see more of it as soon as PDA vendors figure out that
trying to sleep with Microsoft is suicidal and being in the OS
business yourself is just stupid.

WDN: Have you seen the Transmeta technologies in action? Some have
said the secrecy surrounding the project was simply great marketing.
Others contend that there's nothing really new going on that hasn't
been done before. Since they will be providing support for Mobile
Linux (and perhaps other open source products), what are your
thoughts on their technologies and their chances for success?

I haven't seen their stuff in action. I'm I'm excited by the
potential, but a little disturbed by their refusal to publish their
benchmark source and protocols for third-party evaluation. That makes
me wonder if they can back up their brag. On the other hand, it's not
smart to underestimate the caliber of talent they have there(and I
don't only mean Linus Torvalds, either).

I'm hoping it will all come good in the second-generation chips. At
this point my dream laptop would wrap the VAIO's case design and form
factor around a fast Crusoe, running Linux of course. That
combinationwould be nearly as good as sex :-).

WDN: What are the leading opportunities that you foresee for open
source projects (in terms of potential applications or markets as yet

The biggest untapped space, of course, is the desktop; we're only at
1-4% there. I say that not because I think that's the most
interesting place to be, but because open source is well on its way to
owning everything else. The trend curve on our adoption in servers is
surprising even to me; IDG just reported a Linux growth rate of
166% over the last year up to over 25% (34% in Internet servers). On
that trend the closed Unixes are history and Microsoft is looking
down the twin barrels of doom in early 2001 or so.

In the areas most likely to be of interest to your readers (PDAs,
appliances, wireless devices) Linux and other open-source projects
are bound to win big on simple economics. Hardware price points are so
low that closed-source platform licenses price themselves right out of
the market (Microsoft has found this out the hard way with WinCE).

On the software level, I think we'll see a continuing push into
applications and end-user interfaces. The formation of Eazel is a
pretty good harbinger -- put the guys who did the Mac interface
together with Linux and $11 million in funding and you will get
something interesting.

WDN: Alot of people look up to you and the work you've
done...accidental revolutionary and all that :-) Who do you admire in
the technology/business world today?

Well, Linus Torvalds of course. Becoming his friend and
co-conspirator and minister of propaganda hasn't undermined my
for his amazing talent and audacity and people skills. I still admire
Richard Stallman and try to maintain our long friendship even though
I think he's out to lunch on some key issues. Larry Augustin (founder
CEO of VA Linux Systems; I'm on his board) continues to impress me by
combining business savvy with a hacker's pure vision of a better,
open-source-centered computer industry. I admire Tim O'Reilly's
near-magical ability to turn technical publishing into an expressive
art, to do books about software and the Internet that are works of
candor and beauty. He, like Larry, is an entrepreneur with deep
integrity and a vision that genuinely aims at a better future.

In the wider world, I'm a fan of Clayton Christensen (author of "The
Innovator's Dilemma"). I met Jeff Bezos briefly once and would like
to chat with him sometime; if anybody can actually pull off the thing in a sustainable way I'd bet on him to do it. I'm not
sure who the strategic brains behind Cisco are these days, but I
admire them too. I'm learning a lot these days from the work of the
economist David Friedman.

I continue to admire, as I have for all twenty-four years of my
career, the original Unix guys. Ken Thompson; Dennis Ritchie; Brian
Kernghan; Doug McIlroy; and all the rest of that original Bell Labs
crew. These men created the software tradition that led to the
post-1985 Internet and to Linux. Our debt to them is immense, and
grows every day.

WDN: Most engineers and technologists are known for their dubious
writing skills. Have you always been interested in writing or was it
a skill you developed out of necessity?

Always. I write as naturally as I code. I can't imagine not doing
both. Interestingly enough, by the way, the rule that most
programmers are clumsy writers breaks at the top. All the hackers I
know well who I consider among the mightiest wizards are also
remarkably expressive and able writers; RMS, Larry Wall (author of
Perl), Guido Van Rossum (author of Python) and Linus himself are all
examples of this.

WDN: Care to step out on a limb and paint a picture of the technology
world in, say, 2002-2003?

Well, that will be two years after the crash of Microsoft in early
2001 :-). Windows will be a fading legacy system that never made it
off aging 32-bit hardware; by 2003 people still running it will be
regarded with the same faint pity and amused condescension that
people still using dedicated word processors or Commodore-128s meet

The hardware market will look like a three-cornered war between
64-bit Intel boxes descended from today's PCs, "gaming" systems with
auxilliary keyboards and more pixel-per-second rendering power than
today's supercomputers, and super-appliances based on Crusoe and
StrongARM chips. The Intel boxes will probably be losing, slowly.

These machines will all have big flatscreens, by the way. Today's
bulky boxy monitors will look quaint and absurd.

Linux will be everywhere, in thicker or thinner disguises. Turnkey
versions will run the appliances (and your cellphone and the web
browser on your refrigerator door). Your 64-bit-monster PC will boot
with a penguin logo into a desktop you won't easily be able to
tell from Microsoft Office (except that it doesn't crash). You
probably won't know how to get to the Linux underlayer on the
PlayStation VI in your TV room -- but your kids will.

The Internet will be everywhere, too. The Bluetooth network or a
descendant will be nearly as ubiquitous as the cellphone net is now;
all new laptops and PDAs will come with built-in aerials. Shops,
restaurants, and other public places will be starting to install
Bluetooth relays as a cheap loss-leader to retain business,
piggybacking the "free rider" use on the broadband links they'd run
for B2B communications anyway. (One of the public controversies will
be whether responsible businesses should block porn downloads over

Whether Gush or Bore is elected, politicians talking about the net
will continue to be clueless and annoying.

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