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Man Against the FUD

"HOLD ON -- ," SAYS ERIC RAYMOND, LIFTING HIS arm with a jerk. "This meat looks raw. Is it raw?"

"Why, yes, it is," the waiter replies.

"I can't eat raw meat," Raymond says, incredulous. He stares at the plate, shaking his head back and forth slowly. "The menu didn't say anything about it being raw. Please take it back."

Right here, I feel like apologizing to Raymond, evangelist of the open-source software movement, for taking him to a closed-source restaurant -- to a restaurant with, at least by his standards, less than stellar user docs (no details about what, for example, carpaccio is), no menu list of ingredients like pizza toppings to choose from and no smorgasbord for customization. Here at the very crowded Il Fornaio café‚ in Palo Alto, the dishes are served as compiled source code.

Fortunately, the rest of the meal executes without a hitch, until dessert, when Raymond takes a sip of his hot chocolate. "This tastes like it has coffee in it." When the waiter walks by, Eric asks him, "Do you put coffee in the hot chocolate here?"

"No, it's just chocolate."

"Well, it tastes like it has coffee in it," says Eric, shooing away the cup with his hand. "Please take it and give me another."

There's nothing wrong with getting what you want, of course, and according to Raymond, that's what open-source software is really all about. "I want to live in a world where software doesn't suck," he says, and so far, he's doing a pretty good job of realizing that dream. In the last year, this boyish-looking, unemployed 40-year-old who lives in a small Pennsylvania town has become, arguably, the most important voice in an exploding movement among businesses and engineers. With his paper "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," a candidate for high rank in the huge canon of letters on technology, Raymond inspired Netscape to give away the source code to its Web browser. With his proclamations around and about the Net, he's given Microsoft reason to fret about the open-source phenomenon. Lately -- and no small thanks to Raymond -- that specter has been looming ever larger.

For years, Raymond has been bubbling actively within the hacker scene. As a sort of cultural archivist and anthropologist for his "tribe," he administers more than half a dozen FAQs, including "How To Become a Hacker" and the "PC-Clone UNIX Hardware Buyer's Guide." But since the early '90s, he has focused most of his energy on preaching open source, and has become one of its loudest, most provocative believers. As Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly & Associates Inc., publisher of technical manuals for open-source programs, puts it, "Eric has the instincts of a natural promoter."

It's true. Across the table, Raymond's face, in its default state, is intense. With a heavily muscled neck and a coiled posture, he looks like he's brooding. Ask him a question, though, and his facial muscles spring into action. His droopy mustache bobs excitedly. He becomes exuberant. "I didn't invent open source," he tells me. "I'm a mouthpiece for my tribe. I am an ambassador. I gave us a language other people could hear."

ERIC RAYMOND HAS NEVER TAKEN A COURSE IN computer science or programming. His childhood, however, was filled with silicon and software. He grew up in Venezuela, where his father programmed mainframes for Sperry-Univac in the '50s and '60s. In 1967, he remembers, when he was 10 years old, his father brought him to his office and let him play one of the world's first video games -- a battleship simulation -- on a computer connected to a cathode-ray tube.

In the late '70s, Raymond attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he programmed on a Digital Equipment PDP10. While hanging around the computer-science center, he came across something that was to have a profound impact on his life. It was an electronic document called "The Jargon File," a compendium of hacker slang dating back to 1973. "I found it fascinating," says Raymond, realizing for the first time that hardcore computer programmers constituted a community, complete with customs and a dialect. "I wanted to be part of it. I fell in love with the hacker culture."

A few years later, in 1983, at a computer conference in Philadelphia, Raymond had another experience that shook him to his core. Bill Gates, the boy-CEO of a smart start-up called Microsoft, had concluded a talk and was taking questions from the audience. When Raymond spoke, Gates scoffed at his question and the entire audience broke out in laughter.

Raymond burned with embarrassment, and he promised himself he would become somebody Bill Gates took seriously.

In 1990 Raymond ran across "The Jargon File" again, and in a move foreshadowing his take-charge attitude within the open-source movement, he dusted off the neglected document and began revising it, without bothering to ask anyone for permission.

Poring over the entries in "The Jargon File" is like unscrewing the top of a hacker's head and peering inside:

 

gronk out /vi./ To cease functioning. Of people, to go home and go to sleep. "I guess I'll gronk out now; see you all tomorrow."

 

bogotify /boh-go'te-fi:/ /vt./ To make or become bogus. A program that has been changed so many times as to become completely disorganized has become bogotified. If you tighten a nut too hard and strip the threads on the bolt, the bolt has become bogotified and you had better not use it anymore.

 

The end of "The Jargon File" (which has sold over 50,000 copies in book form as The New Hacker's Dictionary) contains several entries describing hacker politics, religion, appearance, etc. This part of the book might easily have been called "All about Eric." His religion: neopaganism ("brain games for the nervous system. You can fling thunderbolts out of your hypothalamus"). His politics: libertarian ("When you look at hacker culture, we are all John Galt," the egoist-hero in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged). Raymond's personal sci-fi library is 7 feet high and 25 feet long.

IN A SENSE, IT'S ODD THAT ERIC RAYMOND IS pushing for open source, a software development model that makes use of mobs. On the libertarian list of things that suck (and Raymond is the sort of hardcore libertarian who thinks the DOJ has no business meddling with Microsoft), mobs suck even more than proprietary source-code development methodologies. Raymond is the first person to tell you that he hates mobs. Born with cerebral palsy -- which gave him a limp -- he learned a lesson as a child: "Most of the time, when you see a pack of humans forming it means they're going to beat up on someone. Mob behavior is usually hideous."

That's why Raymond was "profoundly shocked" in 1993 when he first came across Linux -- a mob-built Unix clone that boasts over 7 million users. The Linux kernel was written by a Finnish college student, Linus Torvalds, who handed it over to a community of 40,000 independent programmers on the Net to do with it what they would. To Raymond's astonishment, the mob did something good. Up till then, he had been cranking out code with the belief that software projects had to be contained and held to precise objectives. But there was Linux, flying in the face of former IBM project manager Fred Brook's famous proverb, "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later." Everything Raymond had learned about software made him believe that â something developed the way Linux was would be a bloated, bug-infested sack of limpware. But that's not what happened. The Linux operating system was more stable, structured and useful than Raymond could have imagined.

Ultimately, this shock led Raymond to write the now famous "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." In that paper, Raymond describes his experiment to replicate Linux's results by writing a new program using Linux's method of development. In a nutshell, he proposes, the open-source development system has three rules: "Release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity." These rules, when combined with a straw-horse program, a tribe of hackers and a benevolent dictator who knows a great hack when he sees one, yield great results, Raymond discovered. "I think Linus Torvalds' cleverest and most consequential hack was not the construction of the Linux kernel itself," Raymond wrote in the paper, "but rather his invention of the Linux development model."

At the Linux Kongress in Atlanta in 1997, Tim O'Reilly, who not only publishes open-source texts but also owns stakes in several open-source-related ventures, heard Raymond read "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and invited him to deliver the paper again at O'Reilly's annual Perl conference. There, some Netscape engineers in the audience heard the paper and began spreading it among their colleagues. By January 1998, Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale was invoking Raymond's name in the press and crediting "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" as a major influence in his decision to give away Communicator's source code. ("A hell of a way to get famous!" says Raymond.)

In February, Netscape flew Raymond to California to help write Communicator's usage license. First, though, he and a bunch of Linux folks convened at the Foresight Institute in Los Altos, a nanotechnology think tank, to strategize. At the time, "open source" was not in use. Raymond was still using hacker deity Richard Stallman's somewhat confusing term "free software." But the term didn't work for what Raymond and his tribe were advocating. "Free" means no-cost, and that's not what Raymond -- or Richard Stallman, for that matter -- means by the term. ("Think free speech, not free beer" is the slogan everyone who understands the term tells everyone who doesn't.) Any term that needs defining every time you use it needs correcting, the brainstormers agreed. At Foresight, on February 2, the group agreed upon the term "open source," and a week later, opensource.org was launched to promote the method and the new term.

Because Raymond works for a culture, not a company, nobody's paying him. He never asks the companies he consults for money. I ask him how he pays the rent. "I keep my wife happy. She's a successful attorney who decided that I'm of more use to the world running around making trouble than I would be chained to a desk." Recently, Raymond has been grumbling in public about his role as a "public advocate for the hacker tribe," however. In late March, he issued an emotional statement in which he invited potential candidates to apply for his torch, warning them that "the tribe you've sweated blood to serve [will] turn on you. They will." And in April, Raymond traded ugly jabs on a developer's e-mail list with fellow Open Source Initiative co-founder Bruce Perens over a disagreement regarding an open-source version of a new Macintosh operating system.

And yet Raymond carries on. In science-fiction-fan-speak there's a phenomenon called "egoboo." Egoboo makes the wheels of open source spin. It means a boost in reputation. Hackers operate in a gift economy in which giant-size egos compete with one another for attention and reputation on the Net. If you do something cool, like reduce the length of a subroutine by 50 percent, you score major egoboo. Raymond has appointed himself the open-source evangelist in part to help make a world where software doesn't suck, but also to garner egoboo.

And, of course, there are other reasons.

IN LATE OCTOBER '98, RAYMOND GOT HIS hands on two confidential Microsoft memoranda outlining a strategy against Linux and open source. The first memo quoted extensively from "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." Raymond posted the memos, annotated heavily, on his site and, with his flair for drama, called them "The Halloween Documents."

Microsoft's spin-doctors went into panic mode. They tried to dismiss the memos as "an engineer's individual assessment of the market at one point in time" and a way "to stimulate internal discussion on the open-source model." The press, however, ripped into the memo with glee, and thanks to Raymond's running commentary within the documents, reporters had no trouble unearthing the ugly ideas the memos espoused, such as "OSS [Open Source Software] is long-term credible -- FUD [Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt] tactics can not be used to combat it" and "OSS projects have been able to gain a foothold in many server applications because of the wide utility of highly commoditized, simple protocols. By extending these protocols and developing new protocols, we can deny OSS projects entry into the market."

The memos also heaped praise on the open-source method: "The ability of the OSS process to harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing. More importantly, OSS evangelization scales with the size of the Internet much faster than our own evangelization efforts appear to scale."

What sweet poetry! Microsoft is running scared! Take that, you scoffing chairman.

Tim O'Reilly worries that Raymond's grudge against "The Borg From Redmond" is counterproductive to the cause. Occasionally, he reminds Raymond that there are plenty of smart people with good intentions working at Microsoft, and that calling the company's software "elaborately sugar-coated crap that runs like a pig on Quaaludes, crashes at the drop of an electron and has set the computing world back by at least a decade," isn't going to help win them over to the cause.

But Raymond doesn't care. And pressed, even O'Reilly allows that open source (which is "like gravity") will eventually take over 95 percent of the market no matter how nasty Raymond gets about the chairman who made fun of him 15 years ago.

Will the Borg itself ever go open-source?

Raymond pauses a beat. "Will they con people into thinking they use it? Yes. But really? No." Then: "It would be wonderful if I was wrong."