Bruce Perens Live

“Free Software and Open Source are the same. What difference there used to be between the two is now deprecated. When we first began working on the term ‘Open Source’, Eric Raymond was afraid that IT companies couldn’t deal with Richard Stallman, and thus it would be necessary to distance ‘Open Source’ from Richard and Free Software. But it turned out that the companies have no trouble relating to Richard. They do indeed take him seriously, which became quite apparent during the drafting of the GPL version 3 where several big companies took part in the process. So there is no longer any need to differentiate between the two.”

Bruce Perens has launched into his talk at the Danish Unix User Group, and he immediately touches upon the issue for which he is best known: the definition of Open Source, and his role as a mediator between two of the other big men within the free software community, Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond whose eccentricities and disagreements have become the stuff of legend.

As he notes, Stallman often refuses to give talks where people are using proprietary software, instead offering to “defenestrate the computer” – that is: remove Windows from it (and, presumably, install a suitable free replacement).

Compared to those two, Perens appears as one of the more sensible, pragmatic free software advocates. Usually, he does not attract as much attention as the others, and no more than 30 people have showed up this Monday night to hear the Copenhagen stop in his whirlwind tour of talks around Europe.

Most of these talks are given to various government institutions and policy makers who are considering their stance on free software, software patents, or with open standards, or with the GPL version 3.

Perens obviously gets a lot of practice doing public speaking and he sprinkles the relevant technical and legal expositions with some interesting anecdotes while remaining patient and interested in the questions that appear along the way. He comes across as a sage passing on the growing tradition of free software activism, telling us how to learn from past mistakes and seeking to amend previous wrongs – such as the divide between open source and free software.

His talk is called “Innovation goes public” and it is basically Perens’ interpretation of how the free software advocates should go about introducing the core ideas of free software to policy makers, corporations and other non-technical parties:

“You know how newscasters used to report from a crime scene, saying “The police suspect it is the work of a lone isolated nut”? Well, with the Internet, there are no more isolated nuts! The nuts can easily go on-line and find 50 people who share the same obscure interest. That’s basically how Open Source development came about!”

Perens compares this with the way that old people have embraced the Wikipedia. He has found that there many retired professionals with plenty of time on their hands and no one to receive their no-longer active knowledge, so they begin adding that knowledge to the Wikipedia, finding new communities of shared interest in that way.

But the main point of his talk is how free software compares favourably to proprietary software in that it makes economic sense. He argues that companies should examine their use of software and find out which software they use is the differentiating factor setting them apart from their competitors. For the Amazon bookstore, that factor is the recommendation system which boosts their sales remarkably.

Perens notes that, generally, a company’s differentiating software is less than 5 % of all the software they use. Thus it will make sense to them to keep that 5 % percent proprietary and develop that as they have so far, but to use Open Source for everything else, since those 95% of their software is infrastructure such as web server and operating system software which isn’t giving them any vital advantage over the competition, and thus, it can be developed in an free software fashion, giving all of the companies greater rewards compared to the amount of development they invest.

Thus, Perens explains, the Amazon bookstore uses free software such as the Apache web server, the PHP scripting language and the MySQL database which cost them nothing, and enables them to get custom made development done in-house or by others as they may need it. Thus allowing them to reduce cost and focus on what they actually sell. That is: books.

I quite enjoyed the talk, which lasted almost 3 hours as Perens expanded his scope to touch upon more and more topics. I wonder how he fares with a less geeky crowd, but he certainly was hit here. Make sure to go see him if talks at a LUG near you.


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Apparently, Bruce’s presentation of Richard Stallman wasn’t entirely precise. He has nuanced the relevant points in a discussion here.

I think the inaccuracy resulted from the combination of two statements. I shall relate them separately: 1. Richard often refuses to talk if you bill your conference, your article, or his talk as an “Open Source” one, you have to say “Free Software”. He does this because he wants you to think about Freedom. For this reason, many conferences have been altered their name to suit Richard. 2. If you are interviewing Richard and your computer runs Windows, he will offer to “defenestrate” it, but he will still do the interview even if you do not accept this offer.

If you haven’t picked it up, I have tremendous admiration for Richard. And I like him a lot, even though there are people who make it a lot easier to be their friend. But we are not agreed on some things.


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