OSCON 2002 Wrap-Up

by Andy Oram

Open Source Growth and Community Remain Strong

One unemployed Perl programmer revealed at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention that he took a job varnishing a sailboat in order to earn the money to come to the convention this year. Similar commitment to the cause could be seen everywhere. Certainly, a lot of people who wanted to come had to stay away because they had lost their jobs or their businesses were doing poorly. But some 1,500 people did come (including speakers and press).

What's more significant is that the major open source and free software projects are continuing to develop and meet the challenges of the current computing industry. Every project had a recent or upcoming release to announce. Jarkko Hietaniemi (a convention speaker and O'Reilly author) had just wrapped up Perl 5.8, and the Perl developers are collectively flexing their muscles for the big leap into Perl 6. Apache continues to sprout powerful new extensions such as Xindice (a system for managing and searching collections of documents); a couple of attendees joked that now Apache had even grown to cover email. Even Microsoft went with the flow and announced this week that it was going to facilitate Apache's interoperation with .NET.

We have had four Open Source Conventions (growing out of two Perl Conferences before them), and one can track the development of the movement through the changes in tracks at the convention. The first convention contained a Tcl track as well as a small track for the upstart language few people knew anything about, Python. Tcl is no longer covered by the convention (a necessity I regret because I worked with Tcl developers for a couple years and found them a fascinating lot) but Perl and Python continue and are joined by PHP.

There was little to talk of XML implementations at the first Perl Conference, but people were pouring out of the doors of the XML track this year. MySQL, which was just beginning its meteoric rise to popularity at the first conference, provided a number of popular talks this time, along with PostgreSQL. The JBoss project, NetBeans, and Ant were among this year's Java topics. And of course, one cannot leave behind the list of tracks without mentioning Mac OS X, the proprietary desktop running on an open source kernel and a favorite on laptops throughout the convention.

While praise for the convention could be heard all around (a common phrase was "it keeps getting better every year") several people suggested ways to expand its scope and appeal at the closing "Town Hall." Here are some of the themes that came out of the meeting:

Emphasize and Strengthen Connections Between Projects

Obviously, open source projects interact to their mutual benefit. One could hardly imagine Apache without mod_perl, Samba without Linux, or MySQL without Perl DBI (or an equivalent). Developers often cross-pollinate and make fruitful connections, perhaps seen most obviously in the Parrot project that will provide a common back-end to Perl, Python, and other languages looking for a contemporary backbone. But we don't spend much time recognizing our common goals, needs, and ways of working.

O'Reilly & Associates is in a prime position to play a leadership role in bringing technologies and communities together because it's our job to participate in all of them. And the Open Source Convention is the natural place for project leaders to meet and rub off a bit on each other.

Be More Welcoming to Newbies

A representative of a nonprofit charity, who knew practically nothing about open source and came to check it out, said he would have been helped by having introductory material in at least some of the sessions. Tim O'Reilly agreed that part of the convention's goal was to bring the insights of the open source and free software movements to business people, policy-makers, and potential users. This point leads to the next.

Provide a Policy Track, or More Policy-Related Events

Many O'Reilly conferences include a political keynote, and conference attendees always respond passionately. There are plenty of issues to worry about: copyright controls and draconian laws such as the CBDTA, surveillance technologies and weakened civil liberties, censorship, crippling patents, and barriers to Internet access or full use of the Internet. But in addition to defending technology and networking, there is much to work to do on the positive side, too: As I reported in my most recent Weblog, governments and communities can benefit immensely from open source. Developers and users have to be kept informed and turned into active advocates for the movement.

The open source communities are central to OSCON. Strangely, among all the arguments for quicker bug fixes, lower barriers to market entry, and even the moral arguments for free software, we often forget that a sense of community is its biggest achievement. Richard Stallman has often expressed this as "the right to share." Tim O'Reilly likes to point out that communities have long been a part of new technologies, and at the town meeting he drew a direct connection between the community of the early UUCP networks and current experiments in wireless community networking.

I am reinvigorated and immensely heartened by this year's convention. Yes, the threats to liberty and innovation are powerful and dangerous. But more and more people have not only tasted the pleasures of technological freedom, they have also built their lives, their careers, even their identities upon it. We have some of the best minds in the industry on our side (even those who work with proprietary software in their day jobs). All the indications at this year's convention suggest that open source and the draw of community will continue to thrive and expand. And that's the unvarnished truth.

Earlier Weblogs About OSCON 2002:

Connections already starting at OSCON (July 21, 2002)
Pleasant reunions and new introductions among the earliest of the expected 1,300 attendees expected at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention.

OSCON replete with database topics (July 22, 2002)
Relational databases are still the stars of the data storage firmament. Today's tutorials explained what makes them so enduring as well as where pitfalls lie.

As simple as possible at OSCON (July 23, 2002)
One's judgment of simple versus complex depends less on the programming interface one uses for XML than on one's view of XML itself--if you feel the specifications make sense, you probably feel comfortable with programming it--and perhaps most of all with the fit between XML and your particular data and application.

Start of OSCON sessions, software upgrades, and the attack of the giant squid (July 24, 2002)
Presentations today on upcoming features of Linux 2.5, Perl 6, PHP, Python, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Zope showed an industry that is bold and able.

Government, for and against, at OSCON (July 25, 2002)
We are constantly reminded how little intellectual or cultural capital we'd have without a public domain or commons. We wouldn't have the technology that is currently most exciting to computer users, for instance: Mac OS X.

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is