Open-source software such as the Linux operating system is turning up everywhere bits and bytes meet chips. Created by bands of programmers around the world collaborating to write programs and fix bugs -- usually on a volunteer basis -- it often ends up less buggy and more flexible than conventional software.
Consultant Bruce Perens was senior strategist for Linux and open source at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) for two years until 2002 and also worked for Pixar Animation Studios (PXR) from 1987 to 1999. He thinks open source is a force that could threaten both computer makers that use custom-made software, such as HP and Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and even software giants such as Microsoft (MSFT). BusinessWeek Silicon Valley Bureau Chief Robert D. Hof talked with Perens recently about the unusual, nonmonetary incentives behind the open-source movement, as well as the issues and challenges facing it. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q: Why has open-source software taken off lately?
A: It makes sense economically. It makes social sense. It gets bugs fixed better. And it gives the customers a better sense of security because they can see the code, and they know what the quality of the software is.
Q: It seems strange that social and psychological factors are more important incentives for creating open-source software than money.
A: I worked for Pixar for 12 years. During those 12 years, every piece of software I wrote, except for one, hit its end of life before I left the company -- the projects were canceled or never deployed. Nothing survives. Now, programmers are like artists. They derive gratification from lots of people using their work. Writing software that just gets put away feels like intellectual masturbation. All of the good comes from someone else participating.
One thing I wrote, a debugger [for finding mistakes in software at Pixar], I was allowed to put out in open source. One person said: "Gee, I really want to deploy this in my company, but the documentation isn't good enough." He wrote all new documentation, and he sent it back to me. Suddenly, I had documentation to deploy at Pixar that Pixar did not have to pay me for writing. So my sociological imperative of having my software used globally fit perfectly with Pixar's needs.
Q: The communities that form around open-source software projects also seem to take on a life of their own.
A: There's also an urge among scientists to live in a community of respect where there are smart people around you, they see what you do, and they cooperate with you. Because they possibly have ideas that you don't, together you can achieve more than you could apart. In open source, there's a meritocracy.
Then there's just the doing-good-for-the-world aspect. With open source, engineers took things into their own hands and said: No, we're going in the wrong technical direction, and we're going to change that.
Q: What else is driving open source?
A: There's also plain old economics. Here's the case with Hewlett-Packard. They have something like 2,000 operating-system programmers. For Linux, they will have [about] 200 programmers because they're sharing the cost of that with IBM (IBM), Intel (INTC), and many other companies. They're saving money on that. Most software is not a profit center but a sales enabler for hardware and services.
Q: Why do companies that use software participate in open-source projects, given that they're contractually required to make public whatever improvements they make to it?
A: It works better than consortia. Companies have poured millions into consortia to develop software standards. But they always go down in flames. And open-source projects win over and over again. Why? It's because open-source licensing makes things fair for all the partners. In the consortium projects, there's always the handshake with one hand and a dagger in the other.
Q: There does seem to be another economic incentive behind open source: Software such as Linux, thanks to its more efficient design, can run on older computers.
A: After September 11, a lot of these people suddenly didn't have their information-systems facilities. They couldn't really build it up with Sun and HP equipment because those companies didn't have that much inventory. People put Linux on beige-box [plain vanilla] personal computers, and they could get working. So we suddenly saw a lot of Linux in Wall Street operations that had been destroyed.
Q: What might limit or threaten the open-source movement? Some people worry that Microsoft, for instance, could wield its software patents to sue Linux developers who might infringe on Windows patents.
A: Software patents are a threat. Microsoft could mount a software-patent prosecution. They can afford to buy up patents. They could conceivably do this not with intent to collect damages but with intent to restrain open-source developers. Those developers could probably stay in court about a day before they have to settle.
Is Microsoft going to sue IBM and HP about Linux? It doesn't sound like they really can. HP is their biggest customer today. Would they sue their own users -- some company that's already making use of Linux and Windows -- as well? I don't think so. That would just drive those people away from Windows.
Q: Other folks are concerned that stricter intellectual-property laws will spur piracy-protection schemes that could limit use of Linux and other open-source software.
A: It's possible that you wouldn't be able to download unsigned content with your Web browser -- there would be some auditor that would "sign" content to ensure that it's not infringing copyrights. Web browsers could be made to just not download unsigned content. That's what I'm worried about. We have to get to a happy medium. What we need is intellectual property protection that's not perfect.
The only way to stop open source is to make it illegal. If they're not going to make it illegal, it's pretty hard to stop it.