SCO Gets Valentine, Lessig Campaigns for “Change”

Well, SCO got a big Valentine’s treat last week – a $100M potential investment by the very politically-connected Stephen Norris Capital Partners (an equity firm) and their “partners from the Middle East” to lift the firm out of the morass of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and into private hands. While Linux adherents are clearly annoyed with SCO’s escape from the bankruptcy abyss, the more interesting item to consider is how SNCP is going to get the kind of “bragging rights” IRR out of UNIX.

What if there was a strategic need for an OS that’s entirely licensed for military use? $100M would be a reasonable bet to get return on investment if 1) you had an “in” with the DOD and 2) they buy off that they need an OS qualified for strategic security reasons. I know some people might get hung up on the Middle East connection, but that would only be an issue if there was majority foreign ownership, and that can be easily handled via a domestic equity firm. Just food for thought.

Also, Larry Lessig of “creative commons” fame (whom I’ve interviewed as well as reviewed) has announced that he is considering a run for Tom Lanto’s seat against the very popular and (once again) politically-connected Jackie Speier. Larry’s concern is political corruption, and given the Zeitgeist it is a serious one, but not one that has arisen recently. Several years ago Larry and I chatted about the possibility (before YouTube, mind you) of using user-generated video to create a “truth squad” to monitor political campaigns for honesty. We both could see this coming, but I think it came into fruition with the “macaca” remark blurted out by George Allen (former Republican Senator for Virginia) during a campaign stop and captured on video for the world by the intrepid (and unflappable) S. R. Sidarth. I don’t vote in this district, but I must say that Larry would make this a very interesting race if he chooses to enter it. Time will tell.

When Internet Rants Go Too Far – How Vulgar Commentary Masks Naked Power Struggles

Sometimes I have problems categorizing articles I discuss. Perhaps this item would have fit in “women & technology”, but I don’t think this is exclusively a “woman’s problem”. Since I’ve seen this since the days of Unix and experienced the brunt of it during the pioneering days of open source and 386BSD, I think it may belong in a broader category than that peddled by the vanishing newspapers.

Fun Friday: Happy Birthday 386BSD!

Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds. – George Eliot.

Today is a special day. Exactly 14 years ago today, after 15 monthly feature articles on Porting Unix to the 386 appeared in Dr. Dobbs Journal, 386BSD Release 0.0 went public.

A number of 386BSD enthusiasts have noticed that we always favored holidays for releases. St. Patrick, as any good Irish patriot knows, was an escaped Roman slave who led his followers through many perils in the wilds of Europe, evading capture until he reached his home in the British Isles. He was then called to mission in Ireland, converting the Celtic peoples to the Christian faith.

386BSD Release 0.0 launched like a rocket – from zero to 250,000 downloads in a week at a time before HTTP, web browsers, Internet buzz, keywording, and Internet source code tools for management and organization, and most importantly, before the business of open source existed (see The Fun with 386BSD).

386BSD, conceived in 1989 as a quick fun yearlong project (see “386BSD: A Modest Proposal”), also ended up personally consuming about six years of our lives (with periodic periods of “real work” in Silicon Valley companies), the birth of my two younger children, the death of my father-in-law, and a move from Berkeley to Los Gatos. We wrote 17 articles (with translations in German and Japanese) plus additional focus feature pieces on new technology issues, three books, thousands of email responses to specific technical questions, and lots and lots of online documentation. Like a writer who discovers there is a thirst for his works, we became committed to a demanding writing and coding schedule.

We did three major public releases (386BSD Release 0.0, 386BSD Release 0.1, and 386BSD Release 1.0) over three years (plus minor releases and custom releases to research and educational groups), in the process rearchitecting the kernel according to the Berkeley architectural committee recommendations a decade prior to bring BSD into the mainstream. We also invented a few cool mechanisms of our own like “role based security” and “automated installation”, and did a heck of a lot of bug fixes, release engineering, and fixes of other code throughout the release.

We reviewed thousands of submission of new code and bug fixes, keeping track manually of items because no one had an open source Internet-only tracking system available for open source yet. We added, tested, and configured thousands of tools, applications, compilers, and other resources that make up a full release, often finding and fixing problems and moving on to the next one in an “assembly line” manner. Most of the resources supplied, from the plethora of applications to utilities to tools were ones we never personally used (did anyone really need ten different editors?), but others did, so we tried our best to give everyone what they needed (or wanted).

Unlike prior Berkeley releases and commercial Unix releases from AT&T/SCO and Sun Microsystems, all this work was funded through our own resources – we got paid for writing articles, and that was a powerful incentive to keep writing more articles, but there wasn’t anything else in it until Dr. Dobbs released the 386BSD Release 1.0 Reference CDROM. No one back then believed that open source would ever be a valuable business opportunity. Linux was similarly treated for many years.

We had our high point and our low points. Of course, my biggest high was the birth of my son in 1990, when 386BSD was still domiciled at Berkeley, and the birth of my daughter in 1994 right after 386BSD Release 1.0 went to the Sony factory for final stamping and distribution. (My husband was invited, but missed the 25th anniversary of the Internet party at USC ISI though – it was a bit too close). It was a real kick to see so many people loved 386BSD and how it melted down the network when so many folks wanted a copy! I heard from people in Africa about how they were using it in schools, and professionals launching on-the-side open source projects. I heard from people from every continent on the planet except Antartica, and maybe they were using it there too and didn’t tell me.

The lows were more personal. The untimely death of a man I loved as a father and who had supported us through Symmetric Computer Systems and this project just as we were asked to do 386BSD Release 1.0 through Dr. Dobbs Journal – my father-in-law William Leonard Jolitz – left us consumed with grief for a long time. We put a lot of ourselves into this work as a kind of personal catharsis and dedicated the first volume of Source Code Secrets to his memory. And the cancer diagnosis of my oldest daughter six months after his death was also a dark time. It was later found benign during exploratory surgery under a local anesthetic (she was nine years old) as my husband held her hand, talked to her, and watched them work.

[Eerily enough, seven years later she received another cancer diagnosis right when I was trying to finish up the first 386BSD paper I’d written after a five year hiatus. After spending a year constantly battling her HMO to take her tumor seriously, they finally did the biopsy, scheduled a surgeon (booked, cancelled, booked) and removed a tumor the size of a Big Mac. I stayed up until 2am the night before finishing that paper while my husband held me together (“seek no mercy from paper submission committees, for ye shall receive none”). While the committee was reading it the next morning, I was sitting in the surgery waiting room with my husband holding my hand. Fortunately, my oldest daughter is now a healthy college student (her dear high school friend Evan, diagnosed earlier with cancer, wasn’t so lucky – after many surgeries to remove tumors at Stanford he died last year). But what I am I am by the grace of God, and His grace bestowed upon me did not prove ineffectual. But I labored more strenuously than all the rest – yet it was not I, but God’s grace working with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).]

Perhaps it’s no surprise that working on just one project at a funded company – even if it was an impossibly hard project of transport protocol dataflow semiconductors – seemed a cakewalk compared to the morning-to-night coding, testing, and writing ritual that we lived by for so many years doing 386BSD. At InterProphet, a privately-backed Internet semiconductor company I helped co-found a decade ago this year, I finally got some time to work on products again and hire / lead a talented professional engineering team that delivered on time and on budget! We all knew the speed of light on processors problem was going to hit us within a decade, and non-Von Neumann mechanisms were the only way to keep up with Moores Law. But I still fondly remember those crazy years of 386BSD Mania, and we still use 386BSD in our own startups and projects to this day.

So Happy Birthday 386BSD Release 0.0! It was the start of something really big – an open source revolution. But like most revolutions, it only takes one pebble to start a landslide.

Apple, Intel and the Price of Obsolescence

Of course, the inevitable after-the-announcement hits, with Matt Marshall’s long-awaited arrival of a new Apple Powerbook a sobering event. “But we’re feeling a bit like a fool today. That’s because the laptop arrived on our doorstep about two hours after Steve Jobs announced Apple’s shift to Intel processors. Even before we cracked open the box, our shiny new Powerbook was a legacy machine”. Such is the price of processor envy.

Matt wonders if he had just waited off, if he could have gotten five years worth of work out of it, but instead “…will officially be obsolete in two, when the new Intel-powered Powerbooks land in Apple stores. Oh sure, the laptop itself will still work fine. But chances are, all the relevant software updates we need to keep the laptop current (from both Apple and independent developers) will begin to disappear, and our Apple flag will be firmly planted in the land of the old.” So true.

Of course, the wags always have the “you never owned the machine anyway, just the use of it, so what are you complaining about” (which is somewhat incorrect as you do own the tangible hardware, and by implication permanent access to low-level software like device drivers that allow replacements, upgrades and repairs, but ignorance is bliss). They also think that five years is bogus. Well, that’s not really right either, but again, most people are pretty ignorant of the difference between the hardware and the software, and even much of the software isn’t as convulsed as one might believe. Here’s Lynne’s take on this tech:

“Well, my kids have inherited a Symmetric 375 Berkeley Unix (Symmetrix) system that is turning 20 years old, and it runs great, has all the Unix utilities, and has the best version of rogue ever. Just a few bad blocks on the disk, but we mapped those out (yes, you can fix a disk drive!).

No, these machines don’t need to be obsolete so rapidly. The bit rot is intentional (as is the broken versioning and updates). Otherwise, folks wouldn’t migrate to new software. But the hardware is actually very reliable and remarkably easy to upgrade from when I started in workstations.

Can you imagine if people couldn’t fix their cars after 3 years? Wow, GM and Ford would love that, but you’d have a rebellion on your hands!

Of course, one could argue that we don’t live, we only buy the USE of life for a time. But I would hope that becoming obsolete according to a corporation’s best interests won’t mean we all end up on “Logans Run” soon after. :-)”

Open Source and Russell’s Paradox – A New Commons?

Jesus Villasante, a senior official at the European Union Commission in charge of Software Technologies in a spontaneous panel discussion on open source decided to shine a light on the lack of coordination, the influence of commercial interests, and the inability to evolve beyond current corporate paradigms. “Companies are using the potential of communities as subcontractors–the open-source community today (is a) subcontractor of American multinationals.” Mr. Villasante is completely correct in his analysis, although I doubt he will find many who will agree in either the corporate camp or in the open source camps.

Well, I do have extensive experience in this area. I co-pioneered the first Berkeley open source operating system using our own personal resources and with the support of the editor and staff of one of the most popular American technical magazines at the time – Dr. Dobbs Journal. Along with doing a complete novel port to the X86 architecture and new architectural design, we documented the porting process, kernel and architecture. We did not believe that simply reading the source was sufficient to understanding, and it required extensive documentation and open design review to provide releases that were reliable enough for researchers (much less consumers). This was the Berkeley way, and we cleaved to it with the support of the technical press.

Even with many releases, there was extensive documentation and careful attention to design trade-offs and discussion – for example, “Is it better to commit time to a patch if the Berkeley architectural goals from 1982 from Dennis Ritchie intended a new subsystem?” and “Are artifacts such as brk() wise in perpetuating so that some legacy programs can be run while impeding evolution in modularity?”. We addressed these and many other issues.

However, what we found is that various interests in the open source and business communities did not wish any new paradigms or evolution of the operating system if it required any changes to legacy applications (some suspiciously acquired). And this was the beginnings of a lot a bad blood in the Unix community.

You Never Know Who’s Watching You

Declan McCullagh of Cnet posted an item last week about Maureen O’Gara and Groklaw which spilled over into the bizarre world of open source paranoia. According to McCullagh, “Maureen O’Gara, a freelance writer who pens the weekly LinuxGram, alleged that Groklaw blog author Pamela Jones is a ’61-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with religious tracts in her backseat.’ O’Gara said she personally visited what appeared to be Jones’ apartment and Jones’ mother’s home in the New York City area.”

While that is mildly amusing, it’s not really surprising. The net allows people to assume, let’s call them “avatars”, that mask the real person with all their consequent flaws and frailties. But anonymity isn’t a Constitutional right, especially when you take center stage in a legal battle, as Groklaw has done. In fact, why be anonymous at all? Since Ms. Jones has lots of supporters who like her work, what’s the problem?

Sun Pats Rump SCO – Tarantella Cashes Out After Lots of Agony

A teeny tiny acquisition announcement brought back a lot of memories today.

Remember Santa Cruz Operation – no, not the SCO you read about fighting IBM and Novell, but the “old SCO”? Bob Greenberg and friends did a very brain-damaged version of Unix for the PC (originally derived from Version 7 and System 3) way back in the dark ages. Bob had done a Version 6 Unix derivative for the RAND Corporation called BobG Unix. The group was spun (thrown? or maybe walked?) out of Microsoft because Microsoft really didn’t want a Unix system if it wasn’t written in BASIC.

In 1982, Intel offered Symmetric Computer Systems CEO and Founder William Jolitz a great deal on 286 processors when he was deciding on processor bids to use in their new workstation funded by Technology Funding Partners (Symmetric’s lead venture firm). There were lots of problems with the 286 and Unix: 1) the instructions were not restartable, so if the operation could not complete (like memory wasn’t loaded) you could not reliably reload the instruction (there were steppings that supposedly could, but you never knew what you’d get), 2) the only way the address space was made large was by the reloading of segments – we’d encountered this problem before with the PDP-11 (William Jolitz work as an undergrad was on overlays for the PDP-11, so he was very familiar with this problem) – performance goes to hell when you move data from overlapping 64 kbyte segments to other segments, with all bets off when you hit an exception during that time, and 3) the calls within the segment and intrasegment calls made for variable sized stack frames, and the way Intel, Microsoft and others agreed on stack frame layout required a major rewrite in Unix – ironically, this made it difficult for early Windows programs derived from DOS as well. From these issues, we knew 286 Unix would never be a successful product, because there were too many compromises to move too many software packages from architectures like the VAX to it. SCO went ahead and made a Xenix based on the 286 – took them three years and a lot of work – and it was still a disappointment.

Open Source – The Times They Are A Changing

Three very interesting little open source stories passed my desk recently that I found shone facets on open source issues.

Last week, the Industrial Commercial Bank of China has signed a deal with Unix-clone Turbolinux to run open-source software in all of the bank’s operations. “Linux deployment is growing in China, with software makers targeting segments such as banking, insurance and wireless applications. Intel last year began a program to boost sales in China of desktop computers based on Linux.” Perhaps Microsoft shouldn’t look to China for much market growth.

Meanwhile, domestic open source companies have also been pursuing revenue through maintanance fees. According to Martin LaMonica of Cnet “In the absence of software license fees, open-source companies are adopting a services-intensive business model, accelerating an industrywide shift toward ongoing, rather than up-front, revenue.” Why would anyone want to pay up-front for software, when you can try it out and pay as you go?

Finally, open source companies, the pariahs of venture capitalists, are finally beginning to get some respect. When William Jolitz and I released to the public after 3 years of work in 1992, there was no serious business model for open source companies – especially an operating system. Companies bundled Unix on their brand of hardware, like Sun or Symmetric Computer Systems. Microsoft had the X86 desktop “locked up”. No one could compete with Microsoft by “giving away software”!

But the times, they are a changing. According to Gary Rivlin of the New York Times, “The first time Marc Fleury tried to raise money for his technology start-up company, in mid-2000, a venture capitalist told him that he didn’t have merely a bad business plan but a terrible one. Not only was Fleury planning to compete against the likes of IBM, but his product was open-source software, which he would give away. Four years later, he tried again. His business was still based on the free distribution of code, yet now there was a dogfight among venture capitalists competing to finance his company, called JBoss.In February 2004, JBoss received a combined $10 million from two prominent venture capital firms: Accel Partners in Palo Alto, Calif., and Matrix Partners in Waltham, Mass.”

Fun Friday – the Curse of BSD and the Four Mistakes

My discussion earlier this week on inaccuracies in papers discussing the evolution and history of resulted in some very interesting questions (see Oh, Goodie! Another Academic on 386BSD…). And a really nice question from suresh at Berkeley: “I’d like to hear your opinion: why did BSD lose to Linux in the battle for OSS hegemony..? How was the BSD release architecture (e.g. what was the political process) decided on? Some friends of fine [sic] swear by the FreeBSD operating system, but they are a minority.”

So Fun Friday is answering the really simple question “Why Did BSD Fail?”. Oh, this is a big one, but I’m game if you are…

Oh, Goodie! Another Academic on 386BSD…

Another paper handed to me, this one on “open source governance” (isn’t that a bit of a oxymoron?), with the usual “Isn’t this wrong about ?” attached to the email. With the John Adams philosophy that “facts are stubborn things” firmly in place, I perused it, leaving errors outside of for others to find.

Oh, boy. I found it to contain serious inaccuracies with respect to the history of – which is absolutely amazing for an academic paper since was extensively written about in one of the lead trade magazines of the time – Dr. Dobbs Journal – in a 17-part series Porting Unix to the 386 documenting it’s evolution, and also distributed through the magazine, and had multiple releases via the net per standard Berkeley Software Distribution methods. So it’s not as if one can’t find lots of source material from the authors. But this paper is riddled with errors with respect to release governance, intentions and motivations, and control – and that pretty much covers everything in “governance”, doesn’t it? So here’s the real story…