December 5, 2000

The HP-Perens union could be good for all of us

Author: JT Smith

-by Tina Gasperson -
Hewlett-Packard today becomes the first traditional company to employ a well-known Open Source advocate -- on purpose, that is. Bruce Perens, the guy who says he was the first to use the phrase Open Source, the former Debian project leader, and the co-founder of the Open Source initiative, has stepped squarely into the mainstream corporate world by accepting the role of paid advisor for HP's Linux and Open Source initiatives. And as the saying goes, it's all good, for everyone.Still, it's not hard to tell who is getting the best part of the new union of Hewlett-Packard and Open Source founding father Perens. "I really like the pajama commute," he says of his work-from-home position. "Valerie (Perens' wife) will still be taking care of the baby, but at least I'll be there at lunch time in case she needs some relief."

As the strategic advisor for Hewlett-Packard's fledgling Linux Systems Operation division, he says he is still Open Source's number one advocate, "but now HP is footing the bill for that."

How this deal is good for Hewlett-Packard

Back in October, another big Open Source dude, Eric Raymond, penned a frank missive to HP CEO Carly Fiorina. He spoke for the entire Open
Source community when he wrote, "You've talked the talk. Now, can you walk the walk?" referring to statements made by Fiorina in a speech at an October 17, 2000, IT expo in Florida, calling Open Source "natural" and "inevitable" and "part of the next wave of computing."

He criticized HP for holding on to the source code for its printer drivers, and for not releasing printer interface specifications, thus hindering development of drivers ported to other operating systems, namely Linux and the BSDs.

Not only that, but he asked HP either to kill its HP-UX operating system and replace it with Linux, or just Open Source the Unix splinter. He finished up the letter with this warning: "You'll also find that we're rather cynical about ringing endorsements; we've heard those before without result, and they won't earn you a lot of cred by themselves without actions and commitments that back them up."

Looking at developments within HP shortly after the receipt of that letter, it would be natural to assume that the strengthening of the Linux division, the founding position on the KDE board, and the decision to hire Perens were all responses to ESR's (and by default, the Open Source community's) challenges.

But it appears that Perens' hiring, at least, was not a knee-jerk reaction. He says he was already in negotiations with Hewlett-Packard by the time that letter was published. "I sent an email to Jim Bell, then the manager of HP's Open Source and Linux Operation (OSLO), asking if they could use the services of a highly visible Open Source advocate. It just happened that it was at the right time. But it was before the letter from Eric."

HP appears to be serious about getting involved with Linux. But there's a big difference between involvement and commitment. As someone once said while staring at a breakfast plate piled high with eggs and bacon, the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed. Hewlett-Packard states as part of its published Linux strategy: "One camp insists that Linux is all hype, while the other claims that world domination is inevitable. HP is taking a pragmatic but optimistic view. The question we are asking is not 'will Linux dominate the world?' but rather 'what part of the world will Linux dominate?'"

When asked about that bit of diplomacy, Perens says, "Well, HP-UX is still a vital part of the package for HP, and it should be." As for Open Sourcing the Unix-based proprietary operating system, "there are parts of it that might be worth opening, but for the most part, I'd rather concentrate on Linux."

With Perens, HP gets an in with the Open Source community -- a go-between, if you will. But interestingly, they also get something much more valuable: a continuous flow of feedback from a vocal representative of the growing Open Source contingency.

And even though he's an HP representative, and as such will speak for the company, the normally outspoken Perens isn't turning into a schill any time soon. He's been given carte blanche to continue expressing his own opinions -- both to the public, and to Hewlett-Packard.

"They've encouraged me to provide criticism," and to step in where he feels that the Open Source cause is being under-represented or trampled within the company.

How this deal is good for the Open Source community

It is that criticism, says Perens, which is the biggest benefit for the community. "It's representation. Really, no one from Open Source has ever been in a company this size." Perens will serve as the foot in the door for this often under-heard segment of technology.

"I'll be doing a lot of traveling," says Perens. He'll take the HP goodwill message on the road in speaking engagements at Linux shows, conventions and other events all over the world.

And hey, now that we have an in, what about the printer drivers situation? "I'm on top of it," says Perens. There are several development projects already hosted at SourceForge, he says, including new work on drivers for the all-in-ones. But how long will it take for some real progress now that Perens is on board? "It will take months," he says, but they're working on it. Honest.

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