July 28, 2006

OSCON day four: Zen and tomatoes

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The eighth annual O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) continued Thursday with updates on Perl 6 and Python, discussion of the Zen of Free, and the final day of exhibits.

The Zen of Free

The first item on the agenda Thursday was Simon Phipps' talk on "The Zen of Free." Phipps, Sun's chief open source officer, talked about the things that make open source work, and understanding what open source is all about.

Phipps gave "koans" to summarize the Zen of open source, saying that open source is about "altruism without sacrifice," "licensing without lawyers," "controlling the community without control," and "staying because I have the freedom to leave."

Basically, Phipps discussed the ways that different people interact with open source projects, and what projects and vendors need to do -- beyond just having an Open Source Initiative-approved license. The license question has largely been settled, but Phipps says that a major area of importance now is governance -- how each project is run, and the rules that allow commit access and control over features.

Phipps says that it's easy to see when governance is bad, such as when committers are arbitrarily kicked out of projects, but it's harder to see when governance is good. According to Phipps, we need a "benchmark" to measure an open source project's governance model against to see "whether it's going to promote freedom."

And, in what has been a continuing theme this year at OSCON, Phipps also talked about the importance of data freedom -- having the freedom to leave a particular vendor or software package and use another. He also says that he wants to see "a world when you see the corporate word 'standard,' it's covered in non-assert covenants" so that anyone can implement standards without fear of patent infringement and other legal nonsense.

As far as keynote type presentations go, Phipps' was one of the best I've been to in a long time.

Instead of having a single keynote speaker drone on for more than an hour each morning, OSCON has had a lineup of several speakers each morning, which gives attendees a chance to hear from a number of key players in the open source arena. While that's a great thing, the side effect is that none of the speakers has much time to give a talk (which can be good or bad, depending on the overall quality of the speaker), and there's a marked difference in the quality of the presentations.

After Phipps' discussion on the Zen of free, Gary Lang got up to talk about APIs and open source code. Unfortunately, this talk seemed like more of a history of Autodesk than anything insightful about APIs and source code.

Robert "r0ml" Lefkowitz's talk, on the other hand, was a lot more fun -- if not exactly something I agree with. Lefkowitz started with various humorous metaphors that could be used, comparing open source to a tomato. He eventually settled into a discussion of "how much open source is healthy?"

Just as people need to eat a certain amount of fruits and vegetables every day, Lefkowitz says that we need to decide just how much open source is necessary and healthy for us -- and, as a side discussion, when is someone using open source? Are you using open source, for example, just by browsing the Web, since most of the servers on the Web are Apache servers? (Or, is ketchup really a vegetable, since it contains tomatoes, and the Reagan administration tried to classify ketchup as a vegetable?)

Lefkowitz poked a little fun at those with only an open source (or vegetarian) diet, displaying a picture of Richard Stallman while discussing vegans and vegetarians.

Where I disagree with Lefkowitz is that he settled into saying that the ideal lies somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of open source software is "healthy." And if we're going to put software on a food chart, instead of comparing proprietary software to meats, I'd say it's more like Twinkies or ice cream -- a little bit is OK, but you've got a problem if you're eating almost nothing but Twinkies.

Python and Perl updates

Python and Perl are undergoing major updates right now, though Python's major update has only recently begun and Perl 6's has been underway for some time (which has been something of a running joke in several presentations at OSCON this year). On Thursday, OSCON attendees could find out what's going on with both languages.

Guido van Rossum, the creator of Python, gave an talk on "Python 3000," the minor revamp of Python, which will eventually result in Python 3.0. During his session van Rossum discussed the philosophy of the new design and gave a tentative timeline for development.

One of the things van Rossum was clear on is that he doesn't want to do a major redesign of Python in the manner of Perl 6. Instead, he says he wants to fix some early design bugs, allow a few changes that would make Python 3.0 incompatible with earlier versions, and get rid of deprecated features for good.

According to van Rossum, there should be an alpha for Python 3.0 in 2007 and a final release during 2008. In that timeframe, development will continue on the Python 2.x series, and van Rossum says we should see the Python 2.5 final released sometime in August, as well as a 2.6 release before 3.0 comes out, and possibly a 2.7 and 2.8 release with backports from Python 3.0.

Most of the changes van Rossum described are minor tweaks to the language, rather than a major overhaul.

Of course, Perl 6 has been undergoing a major overhaul, but it looks like the overhaul is nearly complete. After lunch, Larry Wall and Damian Conway gave an update on Perl 6 development, and discussed some final tweaks in the design of the language.

The Perl 6 update focused on small tweaks to the Perl 6 language that have occurred in the last year, mostly improvements and changes to syntax. For example, Perl ranges now add expressions to say "up to but excluding" or "after this, but up to," which makes working with variables and ranges a little easier in some situations.

The talk didn't actually give a hard timeline, but the presenters did say that the core of the redesign is "almost complete." One thing is certain: A lot of users are interested in Perl 6. Most of the talks I've gone to have been well-attended, but the Perl 6 update was packed to the gills. Every chair in the auditorium was filled, and a lot of attendees were standing or finding floor space as the talk was beginning.

Birds of a Feather

To round out the day, I went to a couple of Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions in the evening, one on Sun's open source strategy, and another on Ubuntu, led by Jeff Waugh.

If I have one complaint about OSCON, it's that everything feels rushed. The schedule is tight, and there are so many different activities on the agenda that it seems like just as you're getting into something, it's over. The Ubuntu BoF was a good example.

As the Ubuntu BoF started, we only had a handful of people in the room, and got off to something of a slow start -- no doubt, many of the attendees had run out to get a quick bite between the end of the last session and the beginning of the BoFs. However, after about 20 minutes, there were about 30 people in the room, and the discussion had just gotten into full swing when we had to surrender the room to the next BoF.

Packing up

Thursday was the last full day of OSCON. The exhibit floor closed up yesterday about 5 p.m., and sessions on Friday will run from 8:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., though O'Reilly is hosting a guided tour of bridges along the Willamette River this afternoon, and there's tour of the Free Geek facility for OSCON attendees this afternoon as well.

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