Musings of a hacker

By: Juancarlo Anez

Abstract: Juancarlo Aqez describes how Eric S. Raymond illuminates open source development and culture.

Musings of a Hacker

Eric S. Raymond illuminates open source development and culture from the perspective of an "accidental revolutionary." 

By Juancarlo Aqez

A recently published book, The Cathedral and The Bazaar, collects the "musings" of a hacker. Two years earlier the hacker's insights into hacker culture and open-source software development had caught the attention of Netscape and Microsoft. Why would Netscape and Microsoft be interested in the musings of a hacker?  And why would you be?

Eric Raymond, former student of mathematics and philosophy, Tae-Kwon-Do aficionado, musician, and now millionaire, reveals himself in his papers as a convincing analyst of the sociology, anthropology, economics, and technology behind open source. His portraits of the hacker culture and of the open-source way of developing software are points of reference for every analysis of open source that's followed. Raymond has become one of the most vocal among open-source evangelists, speaking at numerous computing and business conferences around the world, and giving frequent interviews to the media.

Not just any hacker

Eric S. Raymond was already well-known in hacker circles in 1998. Raymond was the maintainer of the Hacker's Jargon File (published in print as The New Hacker's Dictionary), he was the official maintainer of fetchmail (a program for mail transport over dial-up connections), he had made important contributions to the Gnu Emacs editor, and he had written the first version of his paper "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," which was already furiously circulating around the Net.

But it was not until 1998 that Eric Raymond became a prominent figure outside programmer circles. Early that year, in the middle of the "Web browser wars," Netscape Communications announced that it would disclose the source code to Navigator, its Web browser, as open source. Raymond's arguments in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" were mentioned in Netscape's announcements as part of the reason for its decision. Later, in the last week of October near Halloween day, Raymond disclosed a confidential Microsoft memo. Discussed in this memo were the threats that open source software posed to the company's software, and the strategies Microsoft could adopt to counterattack -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt among them. A couple of days later Raymond disclosed yet another Microsoft memo, this time one that discussed the specific threats that Linux represented to Windows NT.

The Microsoft memos quoted two of Raymond's papers extensively. One of them was "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" (1997), an analysis of the community-oriented, open-source way of software development ("the bazaar"), its successes, and its superiority over traditional, profit-oriented ("cathedral") practices. The other paper was "Homesteading the Noosphere" (1998), an analysis of hackerdom as a "gift culture" driven by desire for prestige and peer recognition. Raymond annotated the Microsoft memos thoroughly, interspersing his comments throughout the documents using different colors. These addenda clarified his papers as well as aspects of open source software and culture that the memos had misinterpreted. They also speculated about ways in which the open-source community could defend itself against Microsoft's strategies. Raymond's edited version of the memos have been known ever since as the "Halloween Documents."

Microsoft finally acknowledged authenticity of the memos. Even though Microsoft said that they did not constitute the company's "official position," the memos were seen as recognition of the viability of open source and Linux by none other than the monster king of operating-system land itself.

Memos disclosed, papers revised, gems revealed 

Last autumn O'Reilly published Raymond's revised and edited papers in book form. Along with "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and "Homesteading the Noosphere", are several more of  Raymond's papers.

In "A Brief History of Hackerdom" (1992) Raymond recounts his view of the events that defined the hacker culture, tracing them back to the '60s MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and the initial deployment of the ARPANET, the Internet's precursor.

"The Magic Cauldron," first published at Raymond's Web site in June 1999, analyzes the evolving economics behind the open-source phenomenon. In this chapter Raymond discusses the differences between a software's use-value versus its sale-value, proposes that "software is largely a service industry operating under the persistent but unfounded delusion that it is a manufacturing industry," and goes on to explore several different actual and speculative business models around open source.

In "The Revenge of the Hackers" previously published by O'Reilly in Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution in 1999), Raymond recounts his experiences as open-source evangelist and describes how a group of people (Raymond, Tim O'Reilly, and Linus Torvalds, among others) actually designed and executed a strategy to promote open source and bring it to the attention of executives in Fortune 500 companies.

The book closes with three appendices: "How to Become a Hacker," "Appendix to The Magic Cauldron" (or "Why Closing Drivers Loses a Vendor Money"), and a final chapter with very complete "Notes and Acknowledgements." The notes include several discussions of views published in response to Raymond's papers.

Enlightenment and delight

Most of the papers in the book are available at Raymond's site and from other Web sources, but having endured the experience of reading them from a computer screen and from hard copies made with a personal printer, I can only recommend that you get the book if you want to read them. (Besides, you'll have more dead trees on your conscience if you print the papers yourself.) Like other O'Reilly books, this one is well-edited and nicely laid-out. The one-and-a-half-line spacing, the not-so-white paper, the small size, and the hard cover make for very comfortable reading.

How much Raymond's papers and the Microsoft memos contributed to the Linux phenomenon is something for historians to elucidate. At the time the memos were disclosed, the Department of Justice's monopoly suit against Microsoft was already under way. Encouraging the media to portray Linux as a threat to Windows NT would have been just too convenient for Microsoft. We may never know for sure if the "Halloween Documents" were intentionally "leaked" to make Linux look good. The fact remains, however, that since the disclosure Linux, open source, the documents, and Raymond's papers have received steady front page coverage all around.

Raymond's papers and the events that surrounded their original publication are keys to a thorough understanding of the open source phenomenon. The papers in The Cathedral and The Bazaar are worth reading for anyone interested in open source, where it will lead, and its possible effects, and the format of this new book presents them in the elegant showcase they deserve.


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