July 26, 2006

OSCON day 2

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The eighth annual O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) continued yesterday with more tutorials, the O'Reilly Radar Executive Briefing, the Open Source Awards, and Larry Wall's State of the Onion report.

The Executive Briefing started off with Tim O'Reilly discussing Web 2.0 and the challenges it poses for open source. Specifically, O'Reilly discussed what it means to be "open" when companies are not distributing the code, but hosting services that are widely accessible. A huge crop of popular applications, such as Google Mail and Search, del.icio.us, and Flickr, are "free" to use, but their source code remains behind closed data center doors.

Even if the source code were open, it's not something that most users could run. O'Reilly used the example of Google Search -- even with the source code, you're missing several thousand computers, not to mention Google's data.

O'Reilly said he wanted to put data on our radar -- and it's a valid point. Users need to think about whether their data is really "free" when it's stored in a Web 2.0 service -- whether you can extract your data from a service in a useful format, whether you own the data that you contribute, and so forth. For instance, if you upload your photos to Flickr, can you retrieve the metadata associated with the photos -- comments and tags -- and move the photos to a different service, or will you have to start fresh elsewhere?

O'Reilly also claimed that "open source licenses are obsolete" thanks to the Web 2.0 model. The GNU General Public License, for example, has no distribution requirement when a company modifies and deploys GPLed code for its business without distributing it outside the company.

What O'Reilly didn't mention is that the new version of the GPL due out this year may well address hosted applications, and that the Affero General Public License (AGPL) has addressed the situation for years.

He also, at least in my opinion, over-emphasized the importance of Web 2.0 applications. While Web-based apps are indeed the Hot New Thing, it's unlikely that they'll displace software run on users' computers anytime soon. The vast majority of software used by most users is still distributed traditionally, and will continue to be for quite some time -- at least until Web-based services reach a higher level of reliability and functionality.

Microsoft and open source

One of the more entertaining items on the agenda was a discussion between Danese Cooper, of Intel and the Open Source Initiative, and Microsoft's Bill Hilf. Cooper grilled Hilf about Microsoft's interactions with the open source community. Hilf talked about how Microsoft wants to learn from the open source community, and things that Microsoft is allegedly doing to cooperate with the community.

One topic that Hilf discussed is the Open Document Format (ODF) plugin for Microsoft Office, which he painted as an effort to be open and cooperative with organizations that want to save their data in ODF. What Hilf didn't mention was the amount of resistance Microsoft has put up trying to avoid any support in Office for ODF.

Cooper asked Hilf if he'd read Groklaw, or if he was aware of reviews that described the ODF plugin as less than an optimal solution for working with ODF. Hilf said that he wasn't, and tried to gloss over the problems with the plugin by talking about the differences between the ODF specification and Microsoft's XML format specifications.

While Microsoft has tried to soften its public image regarding open source, the open source community has not yet started to accept Microsoft. When Cooper asked Hilf if Martin Taylor's departure from Microsoft would end "disinformation" campaigns like the widely despised "Get the Facts" campaign, Hilf claimed that Microsoft hasn't used disinformation, to a general "harrumph" from the polite but skeptical audience, and claimed that it was an issue of which audience Microsoft should target. Presumably, Microsoft needs to target an audience that doesn't know enough to spot disinformation campaigns.

Due to the packed schedule, the discussion between Cooper and Hilf was only a half hour, which is a shame because I think that the audience was really enjoying watching Cooper politely but firmly question Hilf about Microsoft and its relations with the open source community.

I spoke to Hilf briefly during one of the breaks. In general, Hilf seems like a nice guy, but it doesn't seem to me that Microsoft's really changing in any fundamental way. The company is still focused on world domination and proprietary software, and is really only interested in leveraging open source techniques and community without embracing free and open source philosophy. Microsoft may be engaging the community more politely, but it's still a fundamentally adversarial relationship that seems to offer little to the open source community.

Asymmetric competition and becoming standard

Another interesting topic of discussion throughout the day was asymmetric competition -- that is, the ability of open source to enable small companies like Craigslist or Red Hat to challenge traditional companies like Microsoft and Sun.

O'Reilly and a few other panelists made the point that, as open source companies have grown, they've started to take on many aspects of their competitors. O'Reilly posed the question, has open source abandoned asymmetric competition? Red Hat, for example, now has a fairly large sales and marketing operation, and the company has grown significantly over time.

On the other hand, some companies driven by open source still remain much smaller than their competitors. For example, Craigslist has posed a major challenge to the business of newspaper classified ads, and does so throughout the US and in other countries with only 22 employees, and makes money only off a small number of its listings.

Companies to watch

The first segment after lunch was "Who's on the O'Reilly Open Source Radar?" -- basically, an opportunity for companies hand-picked by O'Reilly as companies to watch in the next year. The companies were in the open source space, but not necessarily releasing their products as open source.

A unifying theme for most of the companies or projects chosen was data. DabbleDB, Hyperic, Greenplum, Alfresco, Django, and Mulesource are all companies that -- one way or another -- help companies manage and work with their data.

The major exception to the theme was Ubuntu. O'Reilly talked about Ubuntu several times throughout the day, and seems to think that the upstart distro is pretty important in the Linux arena.

Each speaker had about 10 minutes to make a presentation about their company and why it's important. Several of the presentations were little more than a standard sales pitch, but a few were interesting and informative. In particular, the Django presentation by Adrian Holovaty and Jeff Waugh's Ubuntu presentation were excellent.


Another interesting feature of the Radar sessions was a short presentation about IT market trends based on book sales and job postings. Roger Magoulas, O'Reilly's director of market research, says that book sales have been flat over the last year, but that job advertisements are up.

According to book sales and job postings, Ruby and AJAX are big growth areas right now. Demand for C# is rising, and the number of jobs for Java programmers seems to be shrinking a bit.

Books on Microsoft's SQL Server are selling well, but Magoulas attributes this to the first new release of SQL Server in five years, and noted that there hasn't been a big increase in job postings for SQL Server experts.

Mark Lucovsky, technical director of engineering at Google, formerly an architect for Microsoft, spoke about Google's AJAX Web interface, and how development for Google services differs from developing for Microsoft.

Lucovsky talked about the difference between developing applications for Microsoft, where it might take years to get a feature into a shipping program, and what happens at Google. For example, Lucovsky described writing a feature for Microsoft Exchange in 2004 that missed the cut for the next version of Exchange, which might actually start deploying in customer environments in 2009 or so -- meaning that his code might not see deployment until the next version after that, which he guessed would start seeing deployment sometime in 2013.

On the other hand, Lucovsky talked about deploying updates and changes to Google apps on the order of a couple of times per week.

The final event for the day was a short discussion with Mike Schroepfer, director of engineering for Mozilla. Schroepfer talked about Firefox development, Firefox extensions, and how money is affecting Mozilla. According to Schroepfer, money hasn't changed Mozilla drastically, but he says it does make it easier to pay for servers and hosting necessary to allow so many users to download Firefox and other Mozilla products.

One interesting statistic given by Schroepfer, if accurate, is the estimate of Firefox's current market share. According to Schroepfer, Firefox has a 14% market share at this point, with about 60 million active users.

Unfortunately, most of the talks, including Schroepfer's, were extremely short. The format allowed very little time for any of the presentations, so attendees got quite a bit of variety but very little depth.

According to the conference registration site, the one-day Executive Briefing would set attendees (or their companies) back at least $895. It's hard to say whether the insights offered by the briefing are really worth the price. I expected a little more.

Evening festivities

If you attend an OSCON, expect to be busy. Except for a two-hour break at 5:00 p.m., OSCON events were scheduled on Tuesday from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The evening activities were less educational, but definitely worth attending.

The first order of business was the Google-O'Reilly Open Source Awards, presented by Nat Torkington and Chris DiBona. Cliff Schmidt won the "Best Legal Eagle" award for his work with the Apache project. Gervase Markham won "Best Community Activist" for work with Firefox. Julian Seward was awarded "Best Toolmaker" for the Valgrind project, and Peter Lundblad won "Best All-Around Developer" for Subversion.

The highlight of the evening was Larry Wall's annual State of the Onion report. Ostensibly meant to be an update on the state of Perl, Wall's talk was about 90% entertainment and 10% status report on Perl 6. Wall noted that Perl was first released in 1987, and says that as Perl is approaching its 20th birthday, the language is "growing up."

Though the Perl team has been reluctant to give timelines for Perl 6 to be finished, Wall says that we should have "most of Perl 6" by Christmas. Though it probably won't be a final release, it looks as if Perl 6 might just be ready by the time the language turns 20.

The evening closed out with Damien Conway's "Da Vinci Codebase," a narrated slideshow spoof of The Da Vinci Code that the audience seemed to enjoy.

OSCON continues through Friday at the Oregon Convention Center. The exhibit hall is open today and Thursday, and is free for anyone to attend. If you happen to be in or around Portland, stop by.

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