Betting on Darwin

Doc Searls interviews Marc Andreessen and Tom Paquin on Netscape's Open Source Strategy.
The Technologists and their OS

Doc: Why release the browser source now?

Marc: Today we're at an inflection point, a trigger point, when there's an alignment with the energy of growth. Linux is hot. The technologists have adopted it, and it's growing fast all through the open source community. This gives us confidence that we couldn't screw it up if we tried. And now we can't de-commit. This thing has been set in motion. Even if we do nothing, there's no stopping what's going to happen. It's going to be fun.

Doc: A few years back, somebody at Netscape called—maybe it was you—and said, without meaning insult, that the OS is “just a device driver.” Is Linux well suited to that role?

Marc: Yes. Linux is evolving naturally to do what an OS does best, while Windows is constantly adding non-OS functionalities as part of a vertical strategy to take over layer after layer above the OS. This looks a lot like what IBM did first and Apple did all over again on the IBM model. It has made Microsoft much more vulnerable to a grass-roots technology movement like Linux, and is one of the reasons Linux is the only non-Microsoft OS that's gaining market share. It's amazing that these companies make the same mistakes over and over again, but they do.

Doc: There is an irony here. One of the reasons why PCs rather than Macintoshes were established in companies, was that, although everybody agreed Macintoshes were better, the technologists would rather work with DOS because they could easily write DOS programs that addressed a specific problem. In the same way today, the technologists would rather work with Linux. What you said at SVLUG about customers using Macintoshes and PCs at work and Linux boxes at home isn't just a joke. There's something going on here.

Marc: Absolutely. Technologists are driving progress, and it's easier to drive with Linux than with anything else.

Doc: Tell me more about your role in the Linux movement.

Tom: What we want to do is give Linux critical mass so it hits a crossover point. There's a huge development community that's growing bigger every day. And it's an efficient one relying on massive peer review that you can't replicate inside the corporate world, although the two overlap a great deal. So we're betting on Darwin here—natural selection. All we're doing with is helping create conditions that give evolution a hand.

Marc: It's the exact same thing I saw with the Net. Before it hit critical mass, the Internet had a million plus users. People were using it every day, and all of them were technologists. But the Net was also unapproachable and not understandable to people outside that community. They'd scratch their heads and wouldn't get the point. The crossover point came with e-mail and the Web—though I think e-mail was the bigger driver. Suddenly it became relevant to everybody. But first it had to reach a critical mass in the technologist community. Linux is there today, and it's ready to cross over. But it requires specific catalyzing events, just like the Internet did.

Doc: And releasing the Mozilla source may be just the event.

Marc: Right.

Getting to Scalability

Doc: You say you are looking for Linux to obtain a scalability to support a lot of database transactions and large-scale information processing that Solaris, AIX and those other UNIX variants perform. It seems to me the kind of guys who hang around Linux are not the kind of guys who want to do that kind of programming. Is that true?

Tom: You mean put SMP (symmetric multi-processing) into the kernel?

Marc: Right.

Tom: All you need is a couple or a few people who can steer and many other people who say “Oh, that's an issue? I'll deal with it.” And competent programmers will be all over it.

Marc: Especially since this has already been done multiple times.

Tom: That's my point. This is not uncharted water. Companies have done it. They know where the problems are.

Doc: But it's uncharted water outside of companies, and Linux is sort of this extra-corporate thing. Does the Open Source community sit around caring about this sort of issue?

Tom: If you asked this question six or seven years ago, then you'd have a hard time finding a large and broad enough variety of people who have spent time making, for example, SMP kernels work. In 1998, that's no longer true. You can scoot up and down the street and find people who have done it. A lot of those guys go to the Linux Users Group meetings and are interested in getting SMP in the machine they've got at home. It's just not that remote of a science anymore. So I think your characterization is no longer valid. Marc, do you know Linus's position on this? He thinks it's time to do it, right?

Marc: Right.

Doc: So then it's done. It's going to happen.

Tom: That's right.

Doc: Would you dedicate any internal resources to making it happen?

Marc: Not currently. If there was something specific we could do to help, maybe. But I'm not suggesting Netscape should take more of a leadership role in determining the future of Linux. That seems to be working just fine. Of course, in any case where we can help, we'd be interested in figuring out how.

Doc: I'm trying to figure out how this larger community works. Some of these guys are working at this on their day jobs and some aren't.

Marc: Typically they have very relevant day jobs. At least one person in every technology company on the planet is in this community; so again, this is the same thing that happened with the Internet, and why it broke into the mainstream. It infiltrated itself into all these companies through resident technologists who were interested in it.

Marc Andreessen and Tom Paquin believe in the future of Linux “this much”.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal