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Who will speak for the free software community? This week Eric Raymond posted a plea for somebody to "take my job please." Therein he cites several reasons for wanting out of the free software PR business. Foremost among them seems to be the harsh criticism that he has received from some people who do not like his way of promoting free software. He feels turned upon by the people he thought he was representing. Eric doesn't really plan to quit - yet - but he is feeling some stress. (See his followup "Understand my job, please" piece for more).
Part of the problem, perhaps, is simply an insufficiently thick skin. Eric perhaps lost track of the fact that, in the end, he has been playing a political game. When you play politics, you have to deal with, well, politics. It's never possible to please everybody. On the net, those who are not pleased are able to be very vocal and obnoxious about it. Combined with the fact that people without an axe to grind are generally silent, the environment looks very negative. A person who moves into a highly public position has to expect the occasional thrown tomato.
The first post-"resignation" tomato came, parhaps, from Bruce Perens, who put up this piecesaying, essentially, "good riddance" and talking about how Eric may be replaced. Bruce suggests that the "single charismatic leader" position does not fit well with the free software community; he suggests a group of ten or so "interpreters," and nominates himself for one of the slots.
Bruce's suggestion that there be more than one high-profile, presentable spokesman for free software maybe makes some sense. But the fact remains that Eric's retirement, if it really does happen, would not be a good thing. We, the editors of LWN, hereby ask Eric to remain on the job.
Eric has done us a lot of good over the last year or so. It's been said many times that technical superiority is not enough to enable a new system to find success. The sad fact is that good PR matters too. And Eric has done a lot to publicize the advantages of the free software development process. Without him, it could well be that we would not have such a large list of companies moving toward free software. Certainly many (or most) of those companies are not where we would like them to be, but they are moving in the right direction. Who expected even as much movement as we have see so far, much less perfection?
Would Mozilla, Jikes, or Zopebe available without Eric's efforts to make free software understandable and respectable to corporations? Would IBM be supporting Apache development, or SGI supporting Samba, or Corel working on WINE? Would Mexico's Scholarnet project have taken its courageous path of putting Linux systems into 140,000 schools? Some of these things would probably have happened anyway, but it's a safe bet that not all of them would have come about when they did. Eric has done free software some real good. It's silly to think that he is unable to contribute any more.
It is also worth thinking, for a moment, about who would replace Eric. It would not be Richard Stallman, Bruce Perens, or anybody else acceptable to the free software purists. Much more likely, we would see free software "represented" by a paid spokesman with a corporate tattoo on his forehead. If we are lucky, it might be a Bob Young or a Larry Augustin. But companies like Corel, Compaq, Intel, and Oracle have lots of PR money, big press rolodexes, and the desire to be in that spotlight.
Remember that the free software community can not elect somebody to this sort of position. The media does that.
Eric's retirement is not in the interest of the free software community. Getting him some backup (or even competition), and perhaps some funding would be a good thing. But to hound him out of the public spotlight does a disservice to him personally and to free software as a whole. (See also: coverage in Wired News).
Neal Stephenson has written a lengthy piece about free software. It wanders in Stephenson's usual way, but also presents some interesting insights and is good for an occasional laugh. Here's the article, we strongly recommend that you check it out. Update: this document appears to have been removed from the site, for whatever reason. Until it comes back, there are copies available on this site and also this oneout there on the net.
IDC has put out a new high-priced report which sees a bright future for Linux. According to their press release: "Through 2003, total Linux commercial shipments will grow faster than the total shipments of all other International Data Corporation (IDC) covered client or server operating environments. IDC estimates Linux commercial shipments will increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25% from 1999 through 2003..."
Linux in London. The next in the well-respected series of Netproject conferences will be held on May 11, 1999, in London. Featured speakers include Alan Cox and Miguel de Icaza. See the conference agenda page for more information. Looks like fun, we wish we could be there...
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April 1, 1999