Start of OScon sessions, software upgrades, and the attack of the giant squid
by Andy Oram
Related link: http://conferences.oreillynet.com/os2002
Free software (which is the term I tend to use in casual conversation)
is flexing its muscles and showing good health here at the
O'Reilly Open Source Convention.
For the moment, no one seems concerned that the stock market was
tumbling for the past three days straight, that the way things are going we may all end up selling apples for a nickel on
street corners (and no, I don't mean Apple computers), or even that two-foot-long squid have been reported in today's USA Today to be washing up on San Diego's beaches by the thousands.
The halls are
jammed with people, and the men's room even more so. Predicted registration has risen to about 1475 people. All the key
projects in Open Source are developing in interesting directions and
showing strong community support. Presentations
on upcoming features of Linux 2.5, Perl 6, PHP, Python, MySQL,
PostgreSQL, and Zope showed an industry that is bold and able.
I said Perl 6 would lead to simplification; now I'm not so sure.
Certainly, the developers have done some clever rationalization (which
one can do when stepping back and seeing how usage has developed over
the years). But the bulk of the effort seems to have gone into adding
new features, without letting them get all tangled up like dogs
leashed together in the yard. Despite Larry Wall's comparison of Perl
to natural languages, I don't know if it ever was truly intuitive
(where "works like awk" is not the same thing as
The difference in connotation between "free" and "Open Source" came up
during the keynotes, as part of the discussion that has taken place at
every recent O'Reilly conference about the social and legal challenges
Lawrence Lessig sternly, and perhaps despondently, took the audience
to task for "doing nothing" while the studios and other big content
industries chipped away at our freedoms. This talk is one of the last
that he plans to give on this subject; he needs to return to his
regular legal work (which includes arguing the Eldred case) and his
ambitious attempt to define a new "creative commons." (Unfortunately,
he had little to say about that initiative, which needs a lot of
One of his contributions in this keynote was to point out that the
largest and most frequent uses of creative material always used to be
unregulated: reading, giving a book to a friend, and so on. Only in
the past decade (notably, since the Clinton Administration released a
white paper formalizing the notion that any access to material on a
computer was a "copy") have the content producers tried to bring this
huge unregulated area under their control. "Nobody likes Washington,"
he said, "but if you don't do something now, all the freedom you've
spent your lives coding will be taken away."
The notion of freedom was shaped a more concretely in the keynote by
Richard M. Stallman that followed, which contained his traditional
history of the GNU project and ended with his endorsement of a
"two-step" education whereby people learn to appreciate free software
for practical reasons (which he characterized, with some accuracy, as the goal of the Open Source movement) and then
for moral reasons (the FSF's goal). He asked people to help him drive
the second step, since most people don't know about it and get stuck
before taking it.
Legal and corporate machinations have definitely emerged, I think, as
the threats to Open Source. In practical terms, it has already proven
itself. This was illustrated by the brief talk given by Tim O'Reilly
and Rob Glaser (chairman and CEO of RealNetworks) concerning Monday's
announcement that RealNetworks would distribute its software through a
combination of an Open Source and Community Source license. Glaser
pointed out that Open Source gives the public confidence, because it
denotes quality and stability.
I don't quite know why RealNetworks wants to follow the path emblazoned
by Netscape with Mozilla, but they definitely think they'll get better
software by inviting in the talents of the programming community. And
today they started off the process by announcing work on support for