Open Source's First Six Months

If anybody had suggested to me then that the paper was going to motivate something like the Netscape source release, I would have wondered what they'd been smoking.

Back in March, Netscape announced their intention to release the source code of Navigator. Since that time, we've seen once again that very few things are as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

I'm reminded of this every time I surf the Web. The Open Source meme is everywhere. It seems you can't open a technical or business magazine these days without tripping over an admiring article about Linux—or an interview with Linus Torvalds—or an interview

Half by accident, I've ended up near the center of all the crazy and wonderful things now happening. When I composed “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” a little over a year ago, I was aiming to explain the Linux culture to itself and to explore some interesting and somewhat heterodox ideas about software development. If anybody had suggested to me then that the paper was going to motivate something like the Netscape source release, I would have wondered what they'd been smoking.

But that's exactly what happened, and I soon found myself in the role of leading advocate and semi-official speaker-to-journalists for a hacker community suddenly feeling its oats. I decided to take that job seriously, because somebody needed to do it and I knew how and nobody else was really trying very hard. I had the advantage of experience; I'd been in this role before, for lesser stakes, after the New Hacker's Dictionary came out in 1991.

The point of all this personal stuff is that I've had an almost uniquely privileged view of the early days of the open-source revolution—as an observer, a theorist, a communicator and an active player in helping shape some of the major events.

We've come a long way, baby...

In this essay, I intend to do three things. One, celebrate the incredible victories of the last few months. Two, share my thinking about the battles being fought right now. And three, consider where we need to go in the future and what we need to do, to ensure that open source is not a mere fad but a genuine transformative revolution that will change the rules of the software industry forever.

When you're living on Internet time, it can be hard to remember last week, let alone last year. Take a moment and think back to New Year's Day, 1998. Before the Netscape announcement. Before Corel. Before IBM got behind Apache. Before Oracle and Informix and Interbase announced they'd be porting their flagship database projects to Linux. We've come a long way, baby!

In fact, we've come an astonishingly long way in a short time. Six months ago, “free software” was barely a blip on the radar screens of the computer trade press and the corporate world—and what they thought they knew, they didn't like. Today, “Open Source” is a hot topic not just in the trade press but in the most influential of the business newsmagazines that help shape corporate thinking. The article in The Economist in July was a milestone; another was the August issue of Forbes with an explanation of the concept as their cover story and a picture of Linus on the cover.

The campaign also went after corporate endorsement of open-source software. We've got it, in spades. IBM—IBM!—is in our corner now. The symbolism and the substance of that fact alone is astounding. [Apache is the web server shipped with their Web Sphere product.]

We haven't shot ourselves in the foot...

The last six months are also notable for some things I had feared would happen, but did not. Despite initially sharp debate and continuing objections in some quarters, the hacker community did not get bogged down in a loud and divisive factional fight over the new tactics and terminology. Bruce Perens and I and the other front-line participants in the Open Source campaign did not get publically savaged for trying to gently lead the community in a new direction. No one burnt us in effigy for actually succeeding.

The maturity and pragmatism with which the community backed our play made a critical difference. It has meant that the story stayed positive. We have been able to present open source as the product of a coherent and effective engineering tradition, one able to sustain the momentum and meet the challenge of what the corporate world considers “real support”. It has denied the would-be bashers and Gates worshipers among the press the easy option to dismiss us all as a bunch of fractious flakes.

We've all done well. We've gotten our message out and we've kept our own house in order—and all this while continuing to crank out key advances that undermine the case for closed software and increase our leverage, such as Kaffe 1.0. What comes next?