Eric Raymond: Crusader in the code war

He might look like your stereotypical hacker and he talks like an ageing hippy, but when it comes to open-source software, Eric Raymond knows how to do the business.
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The Independent Online

Eric Raymond is a hacker and proud of it. He's been a hacker since back when it wasn't fashionable to call yourself a hacker or a geek - before Silicon Valley became synonymous with big money and millionaire-making IPOs.

Eric Raymond is a hacker and proud of it. He's been a hacker since back when it wasn't fashionable to call yourself a hacker or a geek - before Silicon Valley became synonymous with big money and millionaire-making IPOs.

Raymond's first book, The New Hacker's Dictionary, is a guide to geek culture in the early days of the Net. He looks like a hacker - pudgy, with the pallor that comes from too many hours of junk food and PC screen glare. His favourite subject is one dear to hacker's hearts: the movement to bring software source code into the public domain.

Both Raymond and that movement (known as open-source or free software, depending on who you're speaking with) have attracted a good bit of attention recently. During the Microsoft trial, the open-source operating system Linux was touted as a real challenge to Microsoft Windows. The open-source Web server Apache dominates the world's server market. Last month, at the open-source community's annual gathering in California, Sun announced the release of the source code and project information for its StarOffice productivity suite.

In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, executives are discussing the merits of adopting open-source technology - will it really produce the best software? (developers tend to think so); can you make money selling it? (companies such as Red Hat are trying). Meanwhile organisations including the US Federal Reserve Board and the Oxford English Dictionary already depend on open-source technologies every day.

It wasn't always this way. For a long time, journalists and private business disparaged what was then known as free software. Few people beyond the software development community paid attention to Raymond's collection of essays on the subject, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The title essay - originally published on Raymond's website, and last year in print, powerfully explicates the theory that software is best developed by a community of hackers working independently and sharing their code. Raymond argues that there are economic benefits to using open-source software - more "eyeballs" on code results in fewer bugs, and furthermore, "It is often cheaper and more effective to recruit self-selected volunteers from the internet than it is to manage buildings full of people who would rather be doing something else."

In January 1998, Raymond's writings convinced Netscape executives to release the source code for their Web browser in a move that stunned the copyright-protective world of corporate software development. "The decision came as a surprise to me," Raymond remembers. "Someone sent me a piece of mail pointing to the original Netscape press release.

"As I was reading the release, large parts of it seemed incredibly familiar, as if someone had taken my paper and put it through the marketing meat-grinder.

"I phoned Netscape and got a call back confirming that their executives had read my paper and were giving my name to national press reporters. It was immediately clear to me that everything had changed."

Today he calls himself a "full-time open-source software evangelist". It's an apt description. He speaks with the zeal of a missionary, without notes, making eye contact, moving with the fierce, directed energy of a bulldog. He mixes religious terms with 1960s hippie-speak; he talks about "converting" business executives to "see the light" of open-source development in which you "roll your own" software rather than buying it from a corporate monopoly. "We have to find some way to slip our LSD into their conceptual water supply," he says.

Raymond says he's found a way to do exactly this. In its early days, the free software movement relied on "bottom-up evangelism", as programmers tried to bring open-source technologies into organisations. Raymond, in contrast, approaches executives. In the Netscape decision, "One guy at the top of the organisation read the paper, made a decision and imposed that on everyone below him. You need to convince the people with the power to say yes."

Raymond advises would-be "evangelists" to "learn the business-school jargon. It makes them think you're one of them". Most significantly, he has led a successful campaign to rename "free" software as "open-source" software. "Free software means no money to the executive. I realised one of the things we needed was to re-brand the product in a way that was less frightening to the target audience. What had been holding us back wasn't better technology: we had that. We kept being beaten by guys with good marketing."

Raymond maintains that once businesses consider open source seriously, they'll stop purchasing proprietary technologies. For businesses, such technologies are a risk. "When you buy software from a closed-source organisation, you're dependent on them for support. They lock you in, put their prices up. If you go with open source you own the software and nobody can take it away from you. You have control. Instead of being in a monopoly situation, multiple service providers compete for your business."

In Europe, he sees an additional reason for organisations to adopt open-source technologies - fear of being dominated by US software companies.

Not everyone in the open-source community agrees with Raymond's approach. Richard Stallman, creator of the open source software Gnu and one of the leaders of the free software movement, has publicly criticised Raymond for basing his arguments on economics and adopting marketing-speak. Others fear that corporations which appear friendly to open-source development can't be trusted to return superior software to the public domain.

But Raymond doesn't view corporations as bad. Despite his hippie jargon, he seems ideally situated in today's new economy, where organisations value technological expertise and chief technology officers are as likely to make corporate decisions as chief financial officers. It's an economy in which a hacker can take on big business - on its own terms. For Raymond, the issue is clear: "Do you want to be an ideologist or do you want to win? I decided I wanted to win."

'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' by Eric Raymond (O'Reilly & Associates, £16.50).