Open Source Summit

The summit was hosted by O'Reilly & Associates, a company that has been symbiotic with the Open Source movement for many years.

On April 7th, 1998, a select group of the most influential people in the Open Source community gathered in Palo Alto to meet each other, consider the implications of Netscape's browser source release, and discuss where the Open Source movement is headed (and, especially, how it can work with the market rather than against it, for the benefit of both).

The summit was hosted by O'Reilly & Associates, a company that has been symbiotic with the Open Source movement for many years. Linux's own Linus Torvalds attended. The inventors of all three major scripting languages were present: Larry Wall (Perl), John Ousterhout (Tcl) and Guido Van Rossum (Python). Eric Allman (Sendmail) and Paul Vixie (BIND/DNS) were present, representing their own projects and the BSD community. Phil Zimmerman, the author of PGP, was there too, as was John Gilmore, a co-founder of Cygnus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Brian Behlendorf spoke for the maintainers of Apache. Jamie Zawinski and Tom Paquin represented Netscape and mozilla.org. For my semi-accidental role in motivating the Netscape source release with “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, I also had the honor to be among those invited.

We met from 8:30AM to 5PM, following up with a well-attended press briefing. It was invigorating just to be around the amount of intelligence and accomplishment there, and a bit sobering to realize how absolutely critical their work has become—not just to the hacker culture but to the world expecting the Internet to become the vital communications medium of the next century.

One of the most important purposes of the meeting was simply to permit everyone to meet face to face, shake hands, look in each others' eyes and hear each others' voices. Many of us had never actually met each other before, despite having been in e-mail conversations for many years. Tim O'Reilly felt (correctly, I think) that Net contact has not been quite enough as a community builder; that the opportunities and challenges we face now require an attempt to build more personal trust among the chieftains of the major Open Source tribes.

In that, I think, the meeting was very successful. But it also certainly dealt with substance as well. We discussed different perspectives on the Open source/free software phenomenon and different definitions of it. One of the meeting's important results was a general agreement that, in all the variant definitions, public access to source was the most important and only absolutely critical common element.

We discussed the vexing issue of labels, considering the implications of “freeware”, “sourceware”, “open source”, and “freed software”. After a vote, we agreed to use “Open Source” as our label. The implication of this label is that we intend to convince the corporate world to adopt our way for economic, self-interested, non-ideological reasons. (This is the line of attack I've been pursuing though www.opensource.org and many recent interviews with the national press.)

We talked about business models. Several people in the room are facing questions about how to ride the interface between the market and the hacker culture. Netscape is approaching this from one side; Scriptics (John Ousterhout's Tcl company) and Eric Allman's commercial Sendmail launch are approaching it from the other. No one is certain yet what will work, but we were able to identify common problems and some possible strategies for attacking them.

We talked about development models—the various ways in which projects are organized, the strengths and weaknesses of each model, and what our individual experiences have been. There were no magic insights, but again it seemed helpful to recognize common problems.

We all understood this meeting could be only a beginning. Late in the day we developed a tentative agenda for a larger follow-up conference which O'Reilly may host later in the year. We hope to bring other key people from the Open Source community in on that follow-up—one of the last things Tim asked us to think about was who should have been with us, but was not.

The day ended with a well-attended press briefing at which all of us answered questions from Bay Area and national reporters—some got the message, some didn't. For every one who genuinely wanted to understand the logic of the Open Source approach, there was another who repeated “let's-you-and-him-fight” questions about Microsoft. Still, the first burst of publicity about our gathering (it is two days later as I write) has been very positive.

We are entering a very exciting time. In the wake of the Netscape release, the Open Source community has achieved a visibility it never had before. We're making friends in new places and meeting new challenges. The larger world we're now trying to persuade to adopt our way doesn't care about our factional differences; it wants to know what we can do for it that is valuable enough to motivate a major change in the ground rules of the software industry.

To do that persuading, we'll need to pull together as one community more than we have in the past. We—not just the Linux community but the BSD people, the Perl, Python and Tcl hackers, the Internet infrastructure people and the Free Software Foundation—will need to present one face and speak one language and tell one story to that larger world.

That is, ultimately, why this meeting was so important. All of us came away with a better sense of what that story is and how each of the major tribes fits into it. Just the fact that we faced the reporters (and, by extension, the rest of the world) together was a very powerful statement. The summit was a good beginning—one to build on in the coming months.

Eric S. Raymond is a semi-regular LJ contributor. You can find more of his writings, including his paper “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, at http://www.ccil.org/~esr/. Eric can be reached at esr@thyrsus.com.

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