Bulletin, February/March 2006

Plenary Session I  
The Open Source Movement Gains Ground

by Steve Hardin

Steve Hardin is associate librarian at the Cunningham Memorial Library at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN 47809. He can be reached by email: shardin<at>indstate.edu.

Matthew J. Szulik, chair, CEO and president of Red Hat, the leading provider of Linux and open source technology, outlined the challenges and opportunities faced by the movement in the opening plenary session of the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science & Technology. Some 250 people filled the auditorium in Charlotte , North Carolina , for the presentation.

Szulik began by showing a promotional video whose theme was that despite ignorance, ridicule and opposition, “truth happens.” It quoted Mohandas K. Gandhi as saying, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Szulik said the video captures the spirit of Red Hat. He complimented ASIS&T for setting up wikis and blogs for the Annual Meeting.

He noted that in 1997 Red Hat was a magazine company. Today, it is valued at more than three billion dollars – built on something as basic and simple as fundamental collaboration. “How does Red Hat make money doing that?” he asked. Linux and open source software today powers some of the most sophisticated systems in the world.

Szulik said the open source movement had its genesis in Richard Stallman’s general public license model, which holds that software should be freely modifiable, under the condition that if you make improvements, you put the improvements back in the open source community. The movement accelerated with the commercialization and proliferation of the global Internet. A third critical step came when Linus Torvalds invented the Linux kernel. This development allowed companies like Red Hat to create things like the Red Hat system around it.

Anyone who has ever used software has walked away frustrated, Szulik said. But the legal protections afforded proprietary software mean the users can’t make changes without risking jail. The primacy of user needs and user control was lost. He drew some analogies: If you don’t like your medical care, you get a different doctor. If you don’t like your legal advice, you get a different lawyer. But the software business over the past 30 years has been set up so that once you’ve bought a software package, it’s hard to get out of it. Companies charge you for something that ultimately has little or no value.

We began to question the value of what we had and the speed of improvement, he said. How do we take advantage of this growing global community of developers, improving things at an exponential rate? Open source isn’t a new idea. HTML was a successful open source project. Red Hat went to enterprise customers and asked if they had an alternative, with the option to improve their software based on their needs, whether the system would grow. He said they agreed with the idea, but didn’t think it would happen.

When Red Hat first went public, it was valued at $18 billion. Szulik said that figure didn’t mean much. The core efforts of what they were trying to achieve were being lost in the orgy of big money in the 1990s. Money had little to do with why he got into the business, he said. The idea was to build communities of use around the idea of sharing. People who work for Red Hat are doing so because they have the opportunity to see their work improve society. They’ve challenged the notion of “product.” They view software as a service. Red Hat has grown; it’s second in growth only to Google. As a matter of fact, he said, people are now co-opting open source software. Licensing and lawyers are gumming things up, he said.

Szulik said he has had the privilege of meeting enthusiasts from around the globe. In the Czech Republic, he was asked how fast they can get open source into their schools so they can improve education, thereby improving their country. He has met with the president of India, who knew more about open source and Linux than he did, and sees open source as a way to raise the standard of living in his country. Red Hat wants to package this material and take it to Brazil, China and other countries and start a public debate. He described the 1s and 0s that are changing our lives every day as “an invisible revolution.”

He noted that in North Carolina, the cost of college tuition has gone up 43% in the past five years. What has been the impact of Red Hat’s open source services? What about state-funded R&D? What about the whole nation? Where does the state funding come from for R&D if we continue to replicate a paradigm that is being leapfrogged in China, Singapore and other places?

Szulik talked about the creation of the Fedora Foundation to support the further development of Linux. You can download the software; it’s free (www.redhat.com/en_us/USA/fedora/). He said when they decided to replace the Red Hat system with Fedora, there was a lot of anger. Red Hat was portrayed as the new Microsoft. He said Red Hat had no expectation of remuneration. If you’re an attentive listener, you’re repaid by getting good feedback.

Red Hat is going through a cultural shift, he said. How do we build a good organization around a digital domain? “The young people we hire are smarter than I am,” he said. They question authority. They have an enormous expectation of transparency. Red Hat’s biggest challenge is recruiting – finding these bright people who are willing to question. Most organizations are more about command and control and spin. It’s interesting because there are no precedents. How do you create an organization where employees have a high degree of autonomy and still contribute? One person recommended that Red Hat not allow its bright minds to get caught in the upward ladder in which they wind up as managers. Instead, the company should make it possible for them to do their jobs and show their creativity.

He’s sitting in an interesting place, he said. Where will the technology take us? Who’s looking at your email? Who’s looking at your desktop? Red Hat, Szulik said, will favor transparency. In fact, he said, leaders in India and Sri Lanka are thinking about e-government, increasing the transparency for their citizens. Freedom is another key concept, he concluded.