Bruce Perens on Hewlett-Packard, Open Source, DMCA and moreBruce Perens went to work for HP as their Global Open Source Strategist in December 2000. Bruce and Mike Balma, HP Director of Marketing for HP's Linux Systems Operation, were kind enough to grant LWN this interview at the 2001 O'Reilly Open Source Convention in July.
LWN: Since you joined Hewlett-Packard last December, how has that relationship been working out?
I felt that to be a member of the community and get their respect I had to be able to speak for myself. I could not just be a company shill. And, that is what my agreement with HP is about. I will be in the middle of a talk with the press that they have arranged, and say "I'm going to go into Bruce's private opinion for a minute." Give my opinion then go back to the HP line.
I can't see IBM having a company spokes-person who also has the right to speak for himself. It's just not big blue. The fact is that it is HP.
Another important thing is that my job statement includes "challenge HP management." That means that I can and do go to see a vice president and tell him that I'm cleaning up for him and I don't like it.
It is nice that the company is brave enough that when they decided to approach the community they would do it on the community's terms. That's something I'd like to see a lot of large corporations copying from HP.
Mike: We literally had to change some human resources policies to allow this to happen. One, because of Bruce's dual role, speaking for HP and himself. Also because Bruce still holds positions outside of HP.
LWN: What do you feel are the most important accomplishments that have grown out of your association with HP this year?
Bruce: I'm glad to say that HP did not need as much prompting from me as you'd think. For example, they were already working on the open source Linux printer drivers before I came there. It is nice that I didn't have to originate that project.
I did give them some advise on licensing. There is a patent issue that we're working through on those drivers so that we don't give the open source developers patent problems.
HP bootstrapped themselves on Linux printer drivers. That is the same with a lot of projects at HP. Engineering will say, "it is time for open source". That message will get to marketing. At that point it comes to me as "How to we do this?", not "Do we do this?" or "Why should we do this?". I am really quite happy about that.
I guess that the biggest change that I'm going to have on HP in the short term is writing their open source policy for the corporation. I'm doing that right now. It has such things as when an employee works on open source on his own time, and it is not a job related project, how do we handle that so that he's able to do that without going to his general manager. Also, when an employee does trivial open source, such as a small patch that is not part of his work, he should be able to get approval for that very quickly.
When you are working on open source as a main part of your job, obviously you want to have a little more input from your manager. It turns out that a lot of people who work for HP are regular contributers with commit access to major open source projects. Even without the open source policy that I'm working on they have been able to swing that.
The best example of a such a contributer would be David Mossberger, the head of the Linux port to IA64. He is an HP employee. He is on the short list of people who would step into Linus's position if Linus and Alan got hit by that theoretical bus.
It is really cool to see HP doing something so significant. The initial port of gcc to IA64 was theirs too, even without my advice. The reason they brought me on really is not so they could have help in in doing these things, so much as that they wouldn't do them incorrectly. They had already decided to do them.
LWN: Did you play a major role in HP's selection of the Debian distribution?
I told them I liked Debian. I told them why. I actually recused myself from the decision. The reason was that I still have an advisory role for Progeny Linux Systems. By the way, Progeny Linux is a healthy Linux vendor. I still am on advisory boards or boards of other open source companies that have something to do with Debian. Progeny is definitely very deep into Debian. For me to change HP's policy to use Debian for its internal development system would have gone straight against their standard business practices about conflicts of interest. In every one of the meetings concerning this decision that I attended, I always announced, "Guys, you keep me honest. I have a potential conflict of interest here. I can't push you. I can only say what I like."
It turned out that the Director of the Linux Labs and the Linux System Operation, Steve Geary, really spear-headed the use of Debian for an internal development system. Martin Fink, who is the general manager, was also very much for it.
Mike Balma, right here on my right, was part of HP's very early involvement with Debian. I don't know if you remember when HP first got Linux working on PA-RISC. We did a press conference with Debian at LinuxWorld.
This is a repeating theme. I did not have to push them too hard. The reason that HP is going with Debian is the visibility of Debian's process and the openness of Debian's team. We can get a developer on the Debian development team without any trouble at all. In fact, we hired Bdale Garbee who is a very long time and very good Debian developer. He is doing work on Debian IA64. We have a number of our engineers who became Debian developers for the purpose of developing the PA-RISC port.
The PA-RISC port is an interesting example. We knew that the IA64 is coming along soon, so people like Red Hat weren't as interested in PA-RISC. Red Hat would have done a port for us for a lot of money. We turned to Debian and said, "We want a PA-RISC Linux distribution." They said, "Fine, here's the keys to our CVS server. Do it with your own engineers. Don't give us anything." And we did it with Debian.
The PA-RISC project illustrates a very important principal in open source free software: the principal of circumvention. No vendor can stop your business plan. No vendor can stand in your way. You can always circumvent them. That's what I really appreciate, and I think HP appreciates, about Linux.
Now consider [Microsoft's] Shared Source. That simply isn't the case because there is always Microsoft at the end with a gate on commercial licensing. If you saw their recent Windows-CE release, its "no commercial use."
Visibility, as with Debian, is another important thing. You know, sometimes we've been working with other vendors, who will go unnamed, who said that they'll deliver something that they did not deliver for five years. When you are a company the size of HP and someone doesn't deliver something for five years, you can lose billions.
With the Debian folks, you know what they are doing every twenty-four hours. We can judge: "Should we hang our business on this?" with a lot less risk. People don't realize that. There is less risk working with open source than otherwise.
Mike: I actually was pretty involved in the PA-RISC port. I was working with the Puffin group two years ago. I was one of the main liaisons from the business side. I was involved with questions like: "Where do we go with this?" and "How do we put a distribution together?". In fact, I met Bruce when we announced at the press conference that not only were we going to have a Debian release for PA-RISC, but also work with our Intel based server folks to support Debian on our Intel based systems. Then it grew to being able to support Debian on IA64, and the R&D guys using it.
A lot of the PA-RISC work was a learning experience about how to work in the open source community.
LWN: In your role at HP, how do approach balancing the needs of the open source community and HP's stock holders?
Bruce: The important thing to remember is that Hewlett-Packard is not Unicef. We are definitely giving away software where it suits our business purposes, but HP has not said, "We'll never do proprietary software again." On the contrary, they want to have a healthy relationship of open source and proprietary software.
Now in the case of infrastructure, infrastructure is not really a differentiator any more. Everybody has got an operating system and it provides pretty much the same services. So HP can share development of Linux with its direct competitors. Companies like IBM, Compaq, etc. And, that's fine because we differentiate ourselves in things like the applications we offer on top of that, quality of our hardware, our support, HP solution providers, etc.
You might not see every product out of HP being open source. But, I think, infrastructure you usually will. In fact, we are probably more slanted towards the really open end than most companies because you don't see many of the others working with Debian yet. Debian is an entirely open system. You can get that system from HP. If you want to you can do all of your business without touching a piece of proprietary software. At the same time, we'll have software that we sell and we have no problem with that.
What I do is I tell them what's fair and what's not fair. Every week or two, I have to tell someone, "No, the GPL is really good for you and you don't want to break it." But that is about the hardest thing that I do.
Mike: Bruce's role is as a Linux and Open Source strategist for HP. He is not our Microsoft strategist. The role that he is in is to help us in that capacity. So those are the types of issues that he deals with.
In fact, there have been some areas where people have wanted to open source things, but the question has been: "Is this really going to be successful?". Both from an HP and a community standpoint. If it is not something that the community really needs or wants, its not really going to be productive. So in some cases Bruce has either said "No, I don't think this is a good idea." or "Let's rethink this and do it right." It has slowed it down, but it gets done in the right way.
That's true, I'll sometimes say, "No, this isn't right to do as an open source project." That really shocks people. When a project is divisive because it is duplicated by other open source stuff, then I'll really be hard on them. I ask if we can join the team instead of having our own. If the idea is to just throw it over the fence and let the community develop it, that doesn't really work. I ask how we are going to stick with it and help it develop.
One of the other things is just making sure when HP does open source, what they represent as open source always is. If they do something that is not open source it must never be represented as open source. They've been pretty good about that too.
LWN: Hewlett-Packard selected this show [the 2001 O'Reilly Open Source Convention] to contribute the CoolTown product to the community. Why is this contribution uniquely significant for the community, or is it?
Bruce: One of the things that people criticize about open source is that a lot of it is catch-up. A lot of it is, well, Microsoft has this feature and we need to have this feature too. And that is true. We've been catching-up for quite a long time.
CoolTown is very different. This is a future-directed project about a world that doesn't exist today. One that open source programmers can actually make happen. I really like to see this kind of research, innovative work, going into open source. Another example that I hold up is the Tux 2 web server. It is the fastest web server in the world. It is part of the Linux kernel. Microsoft is actually copying its design into IIS.
When people criticize us for not being innovative I need only to point to projects like Tux 2 and CoolTown. a company did it but we're turning to the community because we know we need their help.
We want CoolTown to be a standard. It is going to really help HP if it is a standard. It doesn't matter to us that we're giving this software away for other people to use, because it will be in our printers and things like that. Its just been fun working on that policy spin.
LWN: Monday evening, you hosted the West coast premier of J.T.S.Moore's documentary movie "Revolution OS" on behalf of Hewlett-Packard. I enjoyed the documentary very much. What are the origins of his film?
J.T.S. is probably a better person to ask about its origins. I was called in quite a while ago to be filmed for it. That was when I first heard of the film. I did my forty-five minutes in front of a curtain and left.
I was very pleased with the result. Especially since there is another film, a documentary of Linus, that handled some of the open source evangelists' appreciably worse than this one.
I though the documentary was fair. One of the best things about this film is that it highlights Richard Stallman's role, and is honest about the debt that we own Richard Stallman for all of this. We hear: "Linus, Linus, Linus" a lot and the fact is that Linux is really cool. But Linus' contribution is a kernel and we won't be running that kernel forever. We have two other ones now.
Richard's contribution is not a piece of software. Although people really like emacs and gcc, Richard's contribution is a philosophy. I think it goes so much deeper than any piece of software. Just as I am more proud of the open source definition that I am of BusyBox. BusyBox is everywhere, almost in every embedded Linux device. I think the philosophical contribution matters more in the end.
Mike: I have a little bit of background on the origins of the movie. I saw the East coast premier, and J.T.S. was there and answered some questions. J.T.S. is an independent film maker. He is in Hollywood and that's what he does. One of his friends from college was at VA Linux. J.T.S. was looking for a documentary and was talking to his friends. Open source looked pretty cool.
I saw the movie in New York and was really excited about it. We sponsored it here, and it brought tears to my eyes. Just seeing that scene of Richard and Linus. I think it is, as Bruce said, a fair historical record of what's going on. Not complete by any means but fair.
LWN: Bruce, I know one of your interests is patents and the DMCA. Do you have any comments about the kind of success you expect from organizations like PriorArt.org?
Bruce: I still don't know if PriorArt.org is using the right strategy.
One of the problems there is that PriorArt.org is a way for people who don't want to pursue a full patent to just disclose an idea so that it is on file as prior art. A government patent examiner, in the two hours that he has to examine a complex software patent, might find it there.
One of the problems is that people can troll the new PriorArt.org contributions for ideas and then patent some of the implications of those ideas. For example, by taking out a patent on all applications that they can think of based on such an idea. Or, find a out way in which the idea is limited and remove the limit, etc. I'm a little worried about that system.
Until I have a good legal evaluation, what I would rather see is when you have an invention, you put it in a piece of open source software and get that software published right away. If you can, even get it in a Linux distribution so it is on lots of CDs all over. If you can't do that at least get it up on SourceForge or on your own web site. Publicize it as well you can.
That really happened to me. In 1987 I made ElectricFence. I put it out on the net. Less than a year after that, AT&T filed a patent on a similar practice. When AT&T did its patent, they were already talking with the lawyers. They found out about ElectricFence. Because they were honest about it, they cited ElectricFence in that patent. That means that the application I made of it is safe from being patented.
If I had not published that software, AT&T would have owned the patent on the principal, and ElectricFence probably would not have been legal as free software. That is what everyone out there can do.
I think, unfortunately, that we probably can't come to a really good resolution with the software patent system. One of the prices here is going to be eternal vigilance. We have to fight software patents here in the United States, where they are already too prevalent. And, we have to keep them from being accepted in Europe and other countries.
Now when I say that, I've got my Bruce Perens hat on, because that is not necessarily HP's opinion, although HP has been stung by patent law suits before. So, it is even a problem for the very big companies.
LWN: Do you have anything else you'd like to add for our readers?
Bruce: Speaking for Bruce Perens, I'd ask your readers to keep their eyes on the DMCA issue.
Dmitry Sklyarov is still in jail today. Although Adobe has backed down, the federal government still has to decide what they want to do with him. It is really chilling when someone comes to the United States to deliver a scientific paper and ...
Let's be plain, what he delivered was a scientific paper. I've seen it. Its twenty slides. If I was in the e-book business I would really want to see this paper.
One of the things Dmitry Sklyarov's paper shows is that some of the cryptography merchants were really committing a fraud. There was someone who said that they had "burglar proof encryption". Their "burglar proof encryption" was taking the ASCII string "encrypted" and exclusive ORing the plain text with that string. That was their encryption method. This is one of the things that was revealed in Dmitry Sklyarov's slides. These people happened to charge close to $1,000 for their piece of software. As far as I can tell, its worthless. It is on the complexity of the "hello world" program as far as its encryption is concerned.
When somebody comes to the United States and delivers a paper that tells me that, and goes to jail as a result, there is something wrong with our political system. The redeeming feature of our political system is that now, we can get people to listen about that.
DMCA hopefully will fall just because it perpetrates this kind of outrage upon our free speech rights. It is double-ironic that this guy who is a Russian national, is the one who gets imprisoned. We're the guys who have been complaining about the iron curtain and their lack of freedom all this time. Then a Russian national comes here to go to jail for a thought crime.
LWN: Mike, was there anything that you would like to add?
Mike: It has been an incredible experience working with Bruce. To be honest, initially this was a risk, but we all recognized that it was, and still is a risk, because it is doing something very new and different. I've been personally amazed and pleased with the fact that it has worked out so well.
LWN: Thank you both very much.
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