August 29, 2000

Fewer secrets, fewer lies

Author: JT Smith

By: Julie Bresnick
NewsForge Columnist

Fewer secrets, fewer lies

All the World is Not Just a Stage

It wasn't actually Laird Brown that led me to Laird
Brown. But it didn't take long to realize the benefits of
fate. Laird called me in response to an inquiry I made to the
company that is releasing the "first-ever Open Source soft
drink." Now here, I thought to myself upon observing the
news, is an Open Source application I can understand. Inane
perhaps, but comprehensive nonetheless. My curiosity was
piqued. This is what I found out:

Laird is the Senior Strategist for openCOLA, a distributed
applications developer. The company's premiere product is the openCOLA
. "Open" is for Open Source and COLA stands for
Collaborative Object Lookup Architecture. It is an "autonomous
and collaborative agent that collects, analyzes, and
delivers dynamic content." Some of the source code is now
available at and a beta version is expected out in

openCOLA grew out of the interactive department of an
advertising agency. Three guys finally realized they'd be
happier building their own dream software than they would be
working for someone else. Laird joined them in January of
this year, after a long trail of experience that started in
front of a Wang word processer.

He has worked for the United Nations, he's worked on
Wall Street, and in advertising. He's been a writer, an
editor, political consultant and phone freaker. And what, in
this day and age does a guy with this breadth of experience
and sophistication do? Why he plants himself smack dab in the
middle of an Open Source project, of course.

I like him. He makes up words and peppers his speech
with occasional curses for emphasis. He's not afraid to
discuss topics that are difficult to articulate. In fact, that's
where he spends most of his time. That's not to say he's
not eloquent, he is, but he lives in abstraction, he lives
according to ideals, beliefs, greater realities.

During the course of our conversation he repeatedly
refers to the idea of "getting it." "We turned down a
respected V.C. offering a lot of money because we knew they just
didn't get it," he shares matter-of-factly, like they had no
choice. I imagine that particular V.C. would not be amused
at the idea of promoting the Open Source paradigm by
funneling dollars into a new line of soda pop like their current
benefactors are.

In the eyes of the money men it may look like a simple
lark with some positive public relations side effects, which
is what it began as, but Laird recognizes the potential for
greater implications. Indeed, it all started with a couple
of guys from openCOLA sitting around a local Toronto pub
wondering what "the most closed source application in the
world" is. Everybody started throwing out suggestions until a
voice from the back called out, "it's the recipe for Coke!"

Everybody laughed. It was a thorough amusement that
lasted for several days until Laird was, admittedly, the first
one to stop laughing.

"Basically this is an advertising trick ... but more
importantly I believe that people will look at this and get
it. It's a perfect mnemonic for people beyond the development
community to understand what the difference between open
and closed really means in ways that they can relate to.

"Eric Raymond took the geek world and explained it to
the business community," he says, the tone of his voice
conceding that the comparison might be a bit of a stretch. The
general public understands the staunch secrecy with which
commercial corporations guard the recipes for their most
successful products. Coca Cola, Mrs. Fields, Microsoft;
they're all creating a myth by guarding their respective
arrangement of ingredients as if they were the key to their
success. openCOLA wants to initiate the same response by doing
just the opposite.

"We want to become huge because we think that we have
some revolutionary technology. We think it's going to change
the way people use the internet." But in order for people
to understand the true power of their software they have to
appreciate the benefits of its code being open. That
doesn't mean that average Joe is going to go in and mess with
the code themselves, it just means they have the choice.

It's the transparency that Laird claims people crave.
"Nobody trusts corporations these days." But the secrecy
isn't necessary, its function is overated by years of
manufactured hype. Just because the formula will be on the side
of each can and people can easily duplicate the product in
their own kitchen doesn't mean they will. At least not
without a little poison to wash it down but, they'll appreciate
having the option, too.

"Julia Child publishes cookbooks and I don't see anybody
putting her out of business." It's not about the money or
the secrecy or the exclusivity, it's about the trust and
empowerment fostered by the disclosure. Of course, in the
case of the soda it's about novelty but the symbolic
significance of the gesture shant be lost on the Internet
generation. And now that Eric Raymond has begun to build the bridge
between the geeks and the rest of the world then the soda
itself should make it beyond the coder community that's
going to be its sole consumer.

I for one, welcome the metaphor. And like Laird, I'm
hoping it will make it easier to explain Open Source to my own

Expect cans of openCola to be available at the Atlanta
Linux Expo in October.


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