Cyber

Man Against the FUD

How Eric Raymond became the ambassador for the open-source movement -- and why he hasn't quit

By Mark Frauenfelder
Wednesday, May 19, 1999 - 12:00 am
"HOLD ON -- ," SAYS ERIC RAYMOND, LIFTING HIS arm with a jerk. "This meat looks raw. Is it raw?"

"Why, yes, it is," the waiter replies.

"I can't eat raw meat," Raymond says, incredulous. He stares at the plate, shaking his head back and forth slowly. "The menu didn't say anything about it being raw. Please take it back."

Right here, I feel like apologizing to Raymond, evangelist of the open-source software movement, for taking him to a closed-source restaurant -- to a restaurant with, at least by his standards, less than stellar user docs (no details about what, for example, carpaccio is), no menu list of ingredients like pizza toppings to choose from and no smorgasbord for customization. Here at the very crowded Il Fornaio café‚ in Palo Alto, the dishes are served as compiled source code.

Fortunately, the rest of the meal executes without a hitch, until dessert, when Raymond takes a sip of his hot chocolate. "This tastes like it has coffee in it." When the waiter walks by, Eric asks him, "Do you put coffee in the hot chocolate here?"

"No, it's just chocolate."

"Well, it tastes like it has coffee in it," says Eric, shooing away the cup with his hand. "Please take it and give me another."

There's nothing wrong with getting what you want, of course, and according to Raymond, that's what open-source software is really all about. "I want to live in a world where software doesn't suck," he says, and so far, he's doing a pretty good job of realizing that dream. In the last year, this boyish-looking, unemployed 40-year-old who lives in a small Pennsylvania town has become, arguably, the most important voice in an exploding movement among businesses and engineers. With his paper "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," a candidate for high rank in the huge canon of letters on technology, Raymond inspired Netscape to give away the source code to its Web browser. With his proclamations around and about the Net, he's given Microsoft reason to fret about the open-source phenomenon. Lately -- and no small thanks to Raymond -- that specter has been looming ever larger.

For years, Raymond has been bubbling actively within the hacker scene. As a sort of cultural archivist and anthropologist for his "tribe," he administers more than half a dozen FAQs, including "How To Become a Hacker" and the "PC-Clone UNIX Hardware Buyer's Guide." But since the early '90s, he has focused most of his energy on preaching open source, and has become one of its loudest, most provocative believers. As Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly & Associates Inc., publisher of technical manuals for open-source programs, puts it, "Eric has the instincts of a natural promoter."

It's true. Across the table, Raymond's face, in its default state, is intense. With a heavily muscled neck and a coiled posture, he looks like he's brooding. Ask him a question, though, and his facial muscles spring into action. His droopy mustache bobs excitedly. He becomes exuberant. "I didn't invent open source," he tells me. "I'm a mouthpiece for my tribe. I am an ambassador. I gave us a language other people could hear."

ERIC RAYMOND HAS NEVER TAKEN A COURSE IN computer science or programming. His childhood, however, was filled with silicon and software. He grew up in Venezuela, where his father programmed mainframes for Sperry-Univac in the '50s and '60s. In 1967, he remembers, when he was 10 years old, his father brought him to his office and let him play one of the world's first video games -- a battleship simulation -- on a computer connected to a cathode-ray tube.

In the late '70s, Raymond attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he programmed on a Digital Equipment PDP10. While hanging around the computer-science center, he came across something that was to have a profound impact on his life. It was an electronic document called "The Jargon File," a compendium of hacker slang dating back to 1973. "I found it fascinating," says Raymond, realizing for the first time that hardcore computer programmers constituted a community, complete with customs and a dialect. "I wanted to be part of it. I fell in love with the hacker culture."

A few years later, in 1983, at a computer conference in Philadelphia, Raymond had another experience that shook him to his core. Bill Gates, the boy-CEO of a smart start-up called Microsoft, had concluded a talk and was taking questions from the audience. When Raymond spoke, Gates scoffed at his question and the entire audience broke out in laughter.

Raymond burned with embarrassment, and he promised himself he would become somebody Bill Gates took seriously.

In 1990 Raymond ran across "The Jargon File" again, and in a move foreshadowing his take-charge attitude within the open-source movement, he dusted off the neglected document and began revising it, without bothering to ask anyone for permission.

Poring over the entries in "The Jargon File" is like unscrewing the top of a hacker's head and peering inside:

 

gronk out /vi./ To cease functioning. Of people, to go home and go to sleep. "I guess I'll gronk out now; see you all tomorrow."

 

bogotify /boh-go'te-fi:/ /vt./ To make or become bogus. A program that has been changed so many times as to become completely disorganized has become bogotified. If you tighten a nut too hard and strip the threads on the bolt, the bolt has become bogotified and you had better not use it anymore.

 

The end of "The Jargon File" (which has sold over 50,000 copies in book form as The New Hacker's Dictionary) contains several entries describing hacker politics, religion,

 
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