March 19, 2004

University of Toronto conference probes FLOSS concepts, controversies, and solutions

Author: Joe Barr

The University of Toronto's Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI) will host a multi-disciplined conference titled "Open Source and Free Software: Concepts, Controversies, and Solutions" May 9-11. Given the recent rise in commercial interest in free and open source software, it's refreshing to see a conference that is not dominated by the question of "how do we make money off this thing?" Conference chair Dr. Ron Baecker told NewsForge about the thinking behind the event.

Dr. Baecker explained that when the Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI) was founded eight years ago as part of the University of Toronto's School of Graduate Studies, one part of its launch was a three-day public conference called "The Internet Beyond the Year 2000." Although it was a lot of work, the conference was a "huge success." Among the speakers at that conference was Tim Berners-Lee, although, Dr. Baecker pointed out, "this was before he was Tim Berners-Lee."

When it was time to start thinking about KMDI hosting another conference, Dr. Baecker said they wanted a theme "that, if not as big as the Internet, would be almost as big or important. Open source and free software seemed to have the right flavor to it, and the more we looked into it, the more we became convinced that this was what we wanted to focus our event on."

I asked Dr. Baecker if he was a Linux kernel hacker on the side. He isn't, but he has an interesting link to the very beginnings of the free software movement. He said that although his specialty is not computer science, he "was one of the pioneers in the early days of computer animation." In fact, he did important work in that field at MIT and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory during the late 1960s, where he "helped kick off the field of computer animation." He added, "I can remember back in the days when we took it for granted that code would be shared."

The list of speakers and participants at the Open Source and Free Software conference is not yet finalized, but it is already impressive. Keynotes are scheduled to be given by Professor Eben Moglen of Columbia Law School and FSF fame, and University of Toronto grad Bob Young, co-founder of Red Hat Software. Steve Weber, who teaches political economy at Berkeley and whose book on open source will appear later this spring, is also a featured speaker. So are Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web Server Project, and Derek Keats, who recently chaired the first major open source conference in Africa. Matt Asay, the man responsible for the Open Source Business Conference just held in San Francisco, will also participate, as will Evan Leibovitch, who is president of the Linux Professional Institute.

Dr. Baecker said that what he looks forward to the most coming out of the conference are "passionate debate, new insights, and new personal connections to interesting people." Given the speakers and panelists lined up for the event, he shouldn't be disappointed.

If you cannot attend the conference in Toronto in person, portions of the proceedings will be Webcast using the university's ePresence Webcast system, which supports Windows Media, Real, and QT formats.

The ePresence system provided an additional motivation for the conference. Dr. Baecker told us that the school has been working on the system for a few years now, but has been uncertain about how to proceed with it. Should it start a new company to market and distribute it? License it to an existing company? Or find an alternative solution, like releasing it as open source? The conference, Dr. Baecker hopes, will help the university make an intelligent decision.


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