Our Man in Palo Alto: Talking with Bruce Perens

Bruce Perens is one of Linux's most visible evangelists. Here he shares his views on everything from open source challenges HP faces to the danger the term Open Source poses to Free Software.

Interview Opener
PHOTOS © GARY WAGNER

A lot has been said about Bruce Perens, but one thing is for sure: the guy keeps busy. A self-taught Unix hacker, Perens got involved in the Debian project in the early 1990s, first as the mailing list manager, eventually becoming the project leader. Since then, he has co-founded the Open Source Initiative, started the Linux Standard Base, and even spearheaded a VC fund called the Linux Capital Group. Last December, the sometimes rancorous Perens joined Hewlett-Packard’s new Linux group, charged with helping the computer company plot its Linux course. Perens recently met with Linux Magazine’s editor at large Robert McMillan to explain just what he does at HP.

Linux Magazine: So, tell me about your job at HP. You are the only Linux luminary that’s been hired by a large Unix vendor.

Bruce Perens: So far — I think there will be more. Although my division is small, three quarters of the company touch Linux in some way; that’s three quarters of 84,000 people. On the org chart, I am technically three people away from [HP CEO] Carly Fiorina.

LM: But it’s interesting that of all the companies involved in Linux today, HP — and not someone like IBM –was the first to go out and hire a name within the Linux community.

BP: It’s because of HP’s culture. IBM is a New York company; they’re a good deal more straight-laced. They are known for the blue suit. HP has a little more of that laid back California sensibility, a little more social responsibility. And HP was in a position where they could say, “Let’s be part of this Linux movement.” Here’s a company that says, “Let’s go out and really work to be members of the community and not be just a parasite.”

They have been sort of attacked by Eric Raymond. Eric wrote an open letter to Carly while I was already in negotiations with HP and said, “Why don’t you open source your printer drivers,” which was absolutely right, “and while you’re at it, open source HP-UX,” which didn’t make good sense if you ask me. Why don’t we work on Linux instead?

Eric pretty much angered them. They looked around at the open source evangelists, and Richard [Stallman] was a little too far to the left for any business, and Mad Dog [Linux International's Jon Hall] was already taken. It happened at the time that Linux Capital Group [the VC firm that Perens had founded] was closing up, and I sent out a one-line e-mail to five or six companies — to Dell, HP, and SGI, and I forget whom else — where I knew executives. I sent this one line, “Would you like to be associated with a high-status Linux evangelist? Thanks, Bruce Perens.” HP sent me an e-mail back immediately and said, “Well, we’re going to fly out our general manager to talk to you.” So I spoke with Martin Fink right away, and then we had to go through several weeks of long legal review because of my position in another corporation.

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LM: So now that you work for HP, are you allowed to say whatever you want?

BP: The answer is that I have the freedom even to criticize HP publicly. If I think HP is being stupid I can say so.

LM: What do you think HP is being stupid about?

BP: Well, I think that OpenMail was handled really, really poorly.

LM: Did you advise them on what to do with OpenMail?

BP: I was consulted on open sourcing it, and at the time I said, “no,” because of the revenue it was generating. It was losing a little more than it was making, but there was a lot of money in both directions. There was about $10 million in licensing for OpenMail, and I said, “Well, this is a going business, why don’t we keep it a going business.” Proprietary software for Linux is not anathema to me. The fact is, your typical Linux user does not need OpenMail.

LM: So how did HP mishandle that?

BP: Well, it wasn’t really intentional. But they decided to tell the employees that they’d be, not discontinuing it, but stopping the development. It had been going on for five years. Now, one employee, the channel product manager for OpenMail, took it upon himself to send out a customer announcement, in e-mail, that they’d all be done by next Thursday. So it hit a lot of different news channels. Then the world was going, “Well HP, why don’t you open source OpenMail?” They should have thought that through first.

The decision process on OpenMail did not make business sense. You know, they finally decided to sell it, and that made some sense. But there was a lot of vacillating on that.

LM: As HP gets more involved in Open Source, is there a greater risk that they might make bad decisions? This is, after all, new territory for them.

BP: Yeah, we now have an open source review board. We ask, “Does this make sense to open source? Are there other products? Should we be cooperating with them instead? What will be the commercial impact on this? Will we lose big revenue? Will we gain some big revenue because it creates an open standard and people flock to it?” So this board, for the most part, has been presented with open source projects, and we say, “Go ahead.” In only one case, which I can’t talk about, I had to say, “This doesn’t really make business sense.”

LM: What has been your effect there? I mean, what has been open sourced?

BP: Well, the very first thing was to do printer drivers for Linux. There is a clause in the license that says, “For use with HP printers only,” which technically disqualifies them under the Open Source Definition. The reason that clause is there is because there are a lot of patent lawsuits in the printer world. We wanted to make sure that we had taken out all of the patent software before we dumped it on some unsuspecting open source developer, who would then be the one to get sued. HP would not be sued because it’s cross-licensed. And so they divided the driver into 17 pieces. Fifteen of them are patent-clean; we will release the rest very soon. So it’s nice that HP puts in that much care, rather than just dumping it in the lap of some open source developer and saying, “You may or may not have a patent license.”

LM: Is that aspect of things pretty much done as far as you’re concerned?

BP: There are some printers that are still paperweight, but most HP lines work with open source drivers.

LM: Why are some not Open Source?

BP: I think there might be one or two where Microsoft owns the firmware.

LM: Where do you see HP going next? People have said that HP should open source its HP-UX operating system.

BP: I didn’t think much about HP-UX when I took the job.

LM: Did you look at it and say, “Well, there is some software that would be great for us to have?”

BP: Actually, I wanted HP to work on Linux systems. That’s why I wasn’t enthused about HP-UX. There are a lot of people all over the Unix world who say, “This Linux thing cannot compete with us.” Every month the list of features that they have that Linux does not have gets smaller.

The question is how long will it be before Linux does everything that the “big” Unices do. I think it’s three years; not everyone at HP believes that. I think that the multi-processing problem is being solved. The Superdome — HP’s 256-processor computer — will eventually get Linux on it.

LM: The problem may be more political. What if the HP-UX people feel threatened by Linux?

BP: Well, look what happened with the S390 [IBM's mainframe]. It seems that there was substantially less politics in the way of that. The funny thing is IBM is actually selling them; they are not just a demo. HP has a big competitor there, which will certainly help it get done.

LM: What will HP’s claim to fame be as a Linux company?

BP: We’re one of the few Linux companies, other than IBM, that has control over the total customer experience. In fact, we have more control of that than IBM does today, because by working with Debian, we can get a lot more HP stuff into the distribution more easily. Debian has a very good policy about accepting packages. No matter how hard IBM works at it, to do that with Turbolinux or some other vendor will always take negotiations.

That’s why Debian was the only distribution to do PA-RISC: because you don’t have to justify anything in Debian’s business plan in order to get it done. Good engineering — that’s all they care about in the Debian project. So, HP is actually more in control of its destiny, as far as Linux is concerned, than IBM. Both companies are making essentially the same classes of hardware, but HP is not spending a billion dollars on anything and we’re getting just as much done. IBM has a ton of money. That is nice. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have almost unlimited funds, but frankly, if you are going to satisfy your stockholders, if you are going to do good business, or if in the end you are going to do well for Free Software and Open Source, it is probably better to spend your money a little more wisely.

LM: What do you think of your legacy as one of the founders of the Open Source Initiative?

BP: Frankly, I don’t care if I have a legacy or not. I am personally satisfied with what I’ve done. I have been a revolutionary; I am not an accidental revolutionary. I sort of fell into this, but at some point I made a conscious decision to be one. I don’t care very much about what people think of me.

I look at what I have done so far, and can say that I was extremely lucky because I have done things many people hope to do before they die. I am 43; I am still reasonably young. I have achieved what 10 people achieve in an entire career. I’ve been everywhere, done incredible things, had my software fly on the space shuttle, and got my name in books. People on Slashdot say I’m bigger than Cher.

LM: But wouldn’t you say the Open Source Initiative has shifted the dialogue away from Free Software?

BP: Yeah, it did. You know, I correspond with all of the players, Eric Raymond included. Eric and I have certainly had some rough times. When we founded Open Source, my understanding was that Open Source would be a gentle introduction to Free Software and not a separate movement. I would never have participated in Open Source for the purpose of creating a schism. Especially now, it is important that we stand together. That’s more important than it used to be. I harbor some disappointment that Open Source became something that sort of deprecated Richard Stallman’s philosophy rather than leading people into Free Software.

Richard Stallman is not the best person to make the bridge to the complete novice. It takes awhile before you can understand him. So we needed a project like Open Source to get people working on this stuff and, then, they would appreciate their freedom. But I am disappointed that Open Source has been sort of perverted into being a separate instrument. Eric is obviously very aware of that disappointment.

LM: So are you glad you participated in the Open Source Initiative or do you regret it?

BP: It is very interesting because I ran for the GNOME Board and did not get elected, though I did reasonably well in the election for someone who hadn’t done much in the world of GNOME programming. One of the things people didn’t like about me was that I was instrumental in creating the Eric Raymond PR Monster. I hope Eric laughs when he hears this. So, I do actually feel bad about that to some extent because I did not understand where Eric was coming from when I co-founded the Open Source Initiative with him. I cannot say terrible things about him; his heart is in the right place. He’s doing what he believes is right. It just so happens that it’s not what I believe to be right. But had I understood Eric a little better, I would not have co-founded the Open Source Initiative with him.

LM: So you regret that it created a spokesperson for Linux that maybe wasn’t speaking for all of Linux?

BP: There are other spokespeople like that. I mean, I just did a document with Eric, Tim O’Reilly, and Larry Wall. All three of those people are not always friendly to GPL software. They saw the need to stand together, but that is not how they will always act.

Tim, especially, can just be all too conciliatory with the other side. In Tim’s case, it used to be Amazon. Then he went into business with Microsoft. I’m just waiting to see what will happen there. He’s trying to be not quite as zealous about these ideas.

LM: Speaking of Microsoft, what do you see as its broader strategy in its recent anti-GPL comments?

BP: Forget what Microsoft is talking about. What it wants is for software patents to be everywhere and the scope of software patents to be even broader than they are today. Then it wants to halt open source development by going after just the individual developer with software patent lawsuits — not by going after the IBMs and HPs, because they are cross-licensed with a lot of people and they have deep pockets to fight cases. But your individual open source developer cannot afford to be in court for even one day. So if we allow the individual open source developer to be a victim of patent infringement lawsuits…that would essentially be letting Microsoft kill Open Source.

LM: You describe yourself as a very loud person — even as a misanthrope. Do you think you have mellowed in the last few years?

BP: Yes, being forced into some of the roles that I have been forced into certainly had that effect. The other thing that does that is the readjustment of priority that comes with being a husband and a father. I really screwed myself up with a couple of free software projects: Debian, I walked off the OSI [Open Source Initiative] board; I resigned from the Linux Standard Base. Those are the ones that today I might make different decisions about. I still believe it was the right thing to walk off the OSI. I could not stand behind some of the problems there — stuff that I did not feel was professional.

But you know, there is nothing that I regret really. I am very happy with the place that I am in my life right now. If things had been different, I am not sure if I would have ended up in quite as good of a place. Frankly, if Open Source and Free Software were not there, I would still have my family and my other projects to keep me quite busy.

LM: What would you do if there were no Open Source?

BP: I would be involved in other technology-related activism. I have done the HAM Radio stuff before. Right now I am pretty concerned with stuff aligned with Open Source, such as all of these constraints that keep you from copying stuff, viewing TV at the wrong time, and things like that. That certainly deserves more activism. The patent issue deserves a lot more activism. So, even if I weren’t working on Free Software, I would find time for those things.

I started a book a couple of times. I was hoping that HP would be a good place to write a book, but HP is keeping me much too busy.


Robert McMillan is editor at large with Linux Magazine. He can be reached at bob@linux-mag.com.

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