October 9, 2000

Don't let closed source execs be the future of Open Source

Author: JT Smith

By Tina Gasperson
News Editor

Open Source looks and feels different than its proprietary counterparts in the high-tech industry. The phrase alone connotes a fresh style, and a casual, friendly approach, not only at the neighborhood users' group, but also in the office.Sure, most Open Source people tend to look and dress differently, but that's just a surface reflection of what's going on inside. Open Source people have an entirely different philosophy. It embraces information sharing and the notion that, when it comes to technology, we are a network of peers instead of a caste system in which only the intellectual elite get to play with the best toys.

That's why, when I set out to write my first story for NewsForge -- one about the future of Open Source, I wanted to get opinions from a diverse set.

I talked to users and to developers. And I thought, who better to add to the mix than one of the fathers of the movement, Brian Behlendorf.

Brian was one of the originators of the Apache server project. Now, he's founder and CTO of Collab.net, an Open Source development company. One of his publicists, Kerry Coulter of PRInteractive, contacted me on August 8, asking if I'd like to talk to him. Sure, I replied.

But as soon as I agreed, it was as if all of a sudden someone slapped a "verboten" sticker on my forehead. For reasons unknown to me (but certainly open to our speculation), I was now at the receiving end of a vicious case of the runaround.

A somewhat paraphrased version of the remainder of the discourse follows.

I heard, "Brian is slammed this week," and they offered me Bill Portelli, the CEO of Brian's new brainchild, Collab.net.

"OK, I can do that. And yes, I can do it by email, but can you get me Brian, too?"

"Sure," the publicist said. "Just email us your questions and we'll make sure they get answered. But before you do that, could you just reassure us a bit about your motives? After all, NewsForge is owned by the same company that owns SourceForge, which is so similar to our Collab.net."

Oh, I get it now.

"Please," I said, "I am simply a journalist, one commissioned to serve the Open Source community. I want to talk to Brian Behlendorf because I know that my readers value his opinion and the wealth of knowledge that he brings to the table in any discussion that has to do with Open Source software."

"Of course," they said, "We knew that. We just wanted to hear you say it."

"Fine," I said. "Can I talk to Brian now?"

"We'll make sure they get your email questions."

It never happened. The story deadline passed. But a note from in-house PR person Jackie DeCoster on August 18 encouraged me to contact them again if I ever needed commentary for upcoming articles, so when I was working on a story about Indrema, a digital home entertainment system that is coordinating with Collab.net, I contacted Jackie.

She still couldn't seem to get hold of Brian, but said, "Bernie Mills, our vice president of marketing is here and approved this quote:

'By creating the Indrema Developer Network (IDN), CollabNet and Indrema are bringing the Open Source model to a new audience of developers. The CollabNet SourceCast platform provides the critical tools for building a new open source community around the next generation of gaming and multimedia standards,' said Bernie Mills, vice president of marketing."

Yuck! Sounded like a press release to me. I wrote back, "I'd be honored to have a quote from Bernie -- but does he really talk like that? What I mean is, I'd like to have the quote be as conversational as possible, you know, off the cuff."

She answered, "Actually that is pretty close to how he talks."

Fine, I said. By now, I'm feeling a bit disillusioned. I thought reporting on Open Source was going to be different, but these guys are looking and sounding exactly like all the corporate suits I've ever run into before. Sounds like all they want to do is get their front men to spill some hackneyed marketing hype into the media. Sounds like they are closed-source executives. Do they really think the community is going to buy this?

Not ready to say die yet, I try once more to contact Brian Behlendorf through Kerry Coulter.

"NewsForge.com is picking up steam and traffic," I wrote on October 4. "We're excited about it. I'd like to get Brian's (and others') opinion about the MS/Corel deal and how he sees it affecting the Linux community in general. What were MS's ulterior motives, and (other than the fact that it was $135 mil being waved in their faces) why did Corel sell out?"

This time, I heard nothing from Kerry, but my message was forwarded to Melissa James at Interactive PR who informed me that once again, the only person available at Collab.net was Bernie, the v.p. of marketing.

My first thought was, I'll take Bernie if I can get Brian in the deal. But Melissa told me that they're "not using Brian much anymore" when it comes to talking to the press.

Bernie gave me a bunch more hype (he's a real pro -- he managed to work a mention of Collab.net into a discussion of Microsoft buying into Corel!), and the story was getting old anyway, so I dropped it.

But the elusiveness of Brian Behlendorf was still bothering me. Maybe it wasn't him, I thought. Maybe it was just an overly protective PR agency, unversed in the radical way of free communication in the Open Source community.

Maybe if I contacted Brian directly, he'd speak with me. So on Saturday, October 7, I sent an email to both his collab.net address and his hyperreal.org address. Here's the note:

Dear Mr. Behlendorf,

Your public relations staff has inspired me to research and write a story about the maturing of the Open Source movement. Once we were just a bunch of happy kids; then we were chastised for not being organized enough. Now we're big boys and girls and we have flacks who protect us from the very community which nurtured us and raised us to our current glory. For instance, I read an interview with you at Webreview.com in which you said you were willing to speak to the press. Yet, just the other day I spoke to Melissa James as I continued in my repeated attempts to contact you and draw from your expertise in and love for the Open Source community. My readers and I would love to hear from you. This time, she told me that "we don't use Brian much anymore" for that kind of thing. She passed me on to the v.p. of marketing. Marketing hyped language doesn't go over very well with Open Source people. My readers are going to wonder why this is happening! I wanted to give you the opportunity to comment before I file this story about how our Open Source leaders are starting to look and operate more and more
like the closed-source model.

Tina Gasperson
morning news editor

I haven't heard anything yet. Maybe he was away from all computers last weekend and he's just now getting the email. When I hear from him, I'll add his response to this story.

I'm still wondering about getting the cold shoulder. Could it really be that Collab.net won't talk to NewsForge simply because of a remote association with a competing entity?

Is it possible that the folks at Collab.net think that I'm a spy trying to ferret out corporate secrets? Maybe they're just spitefully refusing to cooperate because they don't want to do anything to assist "the enemy."

Or, perhaps it truly is that Brian just doesn't have time for the little people anymore. Sounds to me like, instead of trying to break the mold, some Open Source companies are climbing into it, declaring it a perfect fit. Business as usual? Post your comments in the discussion forum.


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