Apache co-founder talks open-source in Sin City

The open-source model for software development has plenty of supporters and critics alike. Brian Behlendorf, co-founder and president of the Apache Software Foundation (ASF), certainly stands as one of the open-source community’s biggest supporters and one who has long believed that collaborative work on free software will pave a solid path for the future.

Behlendorf, however, butts heads time and time again with opponents at companies such as software giant Microsoft Corp. Even with companies like Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp. making large open-source efforts, the market clout of proprietary, commercial software vendors causes doubts to arise as to how successful the open-source movement can be.

Ashlee Vance, a writer with the San Francisco Bureau of IDG News Service, caught up with Behlendorf at Comdex in Las Vegas recently to discuss some of these issues and to find out where he thinks the future of the open-source model lies.

Vance: Is there any resentment from some parties in the open-source community when large corporations and players late to the open-source game begin affecting the technology?

Behlendorf: Certainly within every one of these big companies that have been involved there have been differences of opinion as to whether it is the right thing to do or not. I had a lot of experience going to companies like IBM and Sun and seeing all of the political debates that go on when they consider going open source. What’s interesting is that you usually have the people at the top, the business leaders, and the developers usually in more of an agreement.

It is really the middle layer of management that is most concerned. They are the ones in charge of profitability and making their margins and making sales. They are the ones who aren’t really empowered to change a company’s business model to accept a different type of revenue stream, moving from selling bits on a CD to selling support kind of thing. They are the ones who tend to resist the most. So what it takes is the people at the top really laying out a new strategy. For example, IBM has been shifting from being a software/hardware company to being a hardware services kind of company. They still sell software, but it is mostly about selling the services around the software.

Most of the companies today are making the shift to services, even the stalwarts like Oracle and Microsoft are starting to realize that they need to not rely on the software licensing model in the future.

Vance: Is there some debate as to when open source is really open source? You have a number of these big companies saying they support the open-source model, but their approach seems different from what you might usually describe as open-source approaches.

Behlendorf: Well, I am a little biased because I am also on the board of the Open Source Initiative – the group that is charged with defending the term open-source. When we see something that is not distributed under a valid open licence then we will get up in arms and send them a nasty-gram and usually they will respond like “Yeah, okay, we will rethink this and re-evaluate it.”

I am hard pressed to think of the last situation where somebody did misuse open-source and did it wilfully. I think we have done a pretty good job of preserving that term. It does get overused quite a bit. It does get thrown out there without people thinking sometimes, but I think the definition has remained pretty clear.

The term open-source is tied to the open-source definition. The open-source definition is about a bunch of different things that make it easier to distribute and specific requirements. I would say the most important requirement is the right to fork. It is the right for a user or somebody outside the developer pool or even a subset of the main development pool to be able to take the code and start a new project.

Vance: Do you feel that some of the major open-source projects have not received enough attention? Apache sits on 60 per cent of Web servers, but some people remain unaware of its dominance in this space. Do you ever get a bit disheartened by the lack of attention?

Behlendorf: I am not frustrated. The fact that we don’t have a multi-billion dollar marketing organization means that, sure, Microsoft is going to be able to claim things or do things that we can’t, but that hasn’t hurt us so far. We are out there more widely than they are.

My hope is that we don’t have to do the whole outreach to the average user. That’s what the role is for the corporations that get involved – the companies like Covalent (Technologies Inc.), or IBM and Sun, or any of these others that are out there using Apache technology. Their role is to be the front end to the rest of the world in terms of the use and promoting it. I think that is a very healthy part of the industry. The companies have by and large found their appropriate roles which is to be this front end.

Vance: Do you think Microsoft will eventually cave in to open-sourcing?

Behlendorf: (laughs) I have gotten past making Microsoft predictions at this point. With US$25 billion it is hard not to be successful. Who knows what will happen though. I think once whatever they do with .Net finally crystallizes – becomes apparent to the world what it is and how it works – there will be open-source alternatives to it. As best as I understand .Net today, there are open-source equivalents.

They have dribbled out open source here and there about whether they might open-source C#. I don’t think they are honest about it though. I haven’t seen any evidence that they are honest yet. They are shifting their business model a bit more toward services. I can’t see how they wouldn’t be threatened by the type of level playing field that having an open-source approach would bring.

Vance: Microsoft seemed to have hijacked XML in a way and then Oracle followed by claiming that what Microsoft was doing was not really XML and that Oracle would bring it back. Do you have any opinions on this XML battle?

Behlendorf: XML is just one step above ASCII. XML by itself isn’t anything radical or huge. I think XML is a better way to organize non-table based types of data. It could even be used for relational type of data. People tried to get that out of HTML, but HTML just isn’t flexible enough to really be a data storage kind of format or data interchange format. I am glad to see XML out there and widely used; it is just that there is a lot of hype around it.

Vance: What about Linux on the desktop? How is that coming along and when could it ever compete with Windows with regard to widespread consumer use?

Behlendorf: Well, OpenOffice is hopefully a big step toward solving the major problem which is a lack of an office suite. People are starting to solve these problems. What is needed is the distribution vendors – people like Corel and Red Hat – need to start looking at how to make their stuff as easy to use as Windows, in fact even aping Windows in certain situations. Have a control panel that looks and acts just like the one under Windows. Have a file viewer that looks and acts like the one in Windows.

I don’t see any reason why open source won’t get to the desktop. It is a harder environment to assail. Open source has tended to favour more framework types of things. As an operating system Linux is there in terms of stability, performance and flexibility, which you probably couldn’t say two years ago. You could only start saying that a year ago but can definitely say it now. And, the applications are more than half way there.

Vance: Even when you look at a Linux company with a graphical interface and a number of applications, they still lack the total package of Windows. Do you fear that as all the applications are added onto Linux it will just become as bloated as Windows?

Behlendorf: The programmers at Microsoft aren’t dumb. They have just been building on top of shaky foundations, partly because of backwards compatibility with DOS. Open source always has to play catch-up with commercial systems. Except for limited situations where there was research very far ahead of its time. I think it is appropriate for the companies to go out and charter new territory first.