“Would you like a beer?”
That offer came on a Saturday morning at the entrance to LugRadio Live USA, a San Francisco gathering hosted last April by four guys from the UK, whose LugRadio podcast combines the community of open source and the anarchy of Monty Python. The “Live” event was the first held outside Britain, and took place on the upper floor of the Metreon, an entertainment/shopping complex near the Moscone Center, the city’s better-known venue for technical conventions. When the complex opened, this elongated space was occupied by an exhibit based on the children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. For a couple of days, the wild things had returned.
“We’ve known Jono through his role as community manager for Ubuntu, who said he was interested in getting LugRadio Live to come to the United States,” said Leslie Hawthorn, a program manager for Google’s open source team who also runs the Google Summer of Code. “We heard such great feedback from people who had attended the LugRadio Live event in the UK, with its orientation toward small open source projects.” Google helped fund the event, did the on-the-ground logistics, provided its branded Google beanbag chairs, and established a micro version of a Google snack room, with its free munchies, as is found throughout the Google campus in Mountain View.
In both its podcast and “Live” form, LugRadio shows just how decentralized and democratized open source has become. “Headquarters” for the podcast is not in London, but two hours north along the M54 in North Wolverhampton. LugRadio’s first podcast was in 2005; its 99th was at the event itself. The show may be the only technical podcast that contains a warning about offensive language. With an audience that now reaches into California, LugRadio has earned an entry on Wikipedia. And while Linux-related and other open source events are hardly uncommon, few are as decidedly uncommercial as LugRadio Live. The closest equivalent around here may be SCALE, the Southern California Linux Exposition held in February. The SCALE people had a table at LugRadio, as did the Haiku operating system people, and for that matter, Google. “Everyone just gets one table, whether you are Sun or the San Francisco Lilliputians,” said Aq. “It’s one table per. It’s all about the people, not about selling stuff. It’s about getting in touch with the community, getting core people together. It’s deliberately not commercial.”
LugRadio Live USA was not entirely loopy, but rather alternated between the conventional and decidedly not. Among the speakers were Miguel de Icaza, founder of the GNOME desktop and current Novell employee; Ian Murdock, who founded Debian and now works for Sun; Robert Love of the Android project, and Jeremy Allison, the lead developer for Samba. These and other denizens of the open source movement gave straightforward presentations and fielded questions
Other parts of the weekend defied convention. There was the “Gong-a-Thong Lightbulb Talk Extravaganza,” a variation on a standard conference theme: you can say anything that’s on your mind as long as you keep it under five minutes. The LugRadio Live variation on this theme was inspired by the opening “logo” from the Rank Organisation, a once prominent British film producer, whose titles opened with a muscle-bound, scantily clad guy hammering a suspended gong. In the LugRadio variation, Aaron Bockover, the lead developer on the Banshee Linux media player, bravely donned a pair of briefs folded to resemble a thong. (“These guys said they’d provide me with a real thong, but they didn’t deliver.”) He attached his show badge to a strategic location, hung a stop watch over his bare chest, but kept his glasses and socks, explaining that his feet were cold.
The audience Gong-A-Thong favorite was Solomon Chang, a certified SQLserver administrator and acting director of LAMPsig, the Los Angeles Development User Group, who sang his satirical Irish ballad, “Coder McKinnan o’ The Cubicles,” whose chorus describes the doomed love of a software developer:
“No lass as she could ever be with nerdy geeks like ye.
Oh, thy lot in life is loneliness as far as I can see.
McKinnan you’re a coder, but a lover not ye be.
Now get back and patch our clients’ PHP.”
But for LugRadio member Jono Bacon, getting the girl is exactly what open source developers should be doing. “You don’t have to be boring or socially inept to like computers. We keep going to conferences and meeting really cool and interesting people.” Bacon said that LugRadio is, for him, an attempt to do an open source version of the U.S. Comedy Channel’s Daily Show?in which Jon Stewart both spoofs the news while interviewing real newsmakers. Other influences include Howard Stern and the BBC motoring show Top Gear. LugRadio also seems to have earlier antecedents: Monty Python and the Gong Show, both icons of British humor.
“When we started doing it four years ago, there was not really any podcasts around,” Bacon said. “The idea was to put together a collection of friends we thought were interesting and amusing and produce something that people will enjoy. From day one it has always been about entertainment?it’s got to be entertaining. For us, no idea is too ludicrous.”
Another LugRadio trademark is the spirited disagreements. “LugRadio is very, very opinionated. I’ve known Aq for years, and when we first met we exchanged these blazing debates,” Bacon said. “They were so fiery that people would think we were about to kick each other. To this day, you’ll hear segments where we go full throttle to the point where it sounds like we will seriously fall out with each other?but we never do.” The heated climate includes frequent swearing, which carried through to the microphone at LugRadio Live. By the standards of an army barracks, this was pretty mild, but measured by the polite atmosphere of the usual technical gathering, the language was off the chart. “When we started out, the bad language seemed to ruffle some feathers, and we would get angry letters about it. We used to bleep it out with animal noises, but that became very old very quickly. So we so we started the show with a disclaimer saying it may contain swearing.” These days, the complaints have subsided, probably because listeners now know what to expect.
Bacon said that LugRadio, both the podcast and the event, also reflect the changing nature of open source development. “The community is more diverse than we used to be. Ten years ago, you had to be a programmer to be involved. That was true even to do documentation: you had to learn a programming language. Nowadays you can get involved in so many different ways. You don’t have to be a super technical person. It’s about working together. We’re all, irrespective of technical ability, capable of doing that.
“Everybody in the open source community is on a crusade?we all believe in free software. And when you are on a crusade, you want to make sure that every contribution benefits everybody else. That’s the reason why people who contribute free software want their contribution being used in free software. And it’s why it’s very difficult for a for-profit company to get people to contribute to their product. Why would I want to contribute my time to something that will just benefit the coffers of somebody else?”
Bridging worlds: Sun and Moonlight
Bacon’s question about contributions and monetary rewards lurked in the background of several presentations at the event. At what point should you expect to be paid for your talents? At what point should you contribute those talents to a greater cause? Are there ways to do both? For example, John Buckman of Magnatune spoke about how his site distributes music licensed under a Creative Commons license?thereby carving out a financial model using intellectual property that is ostensibly given away for free. As a listener, you can stream music from the site for free, or subscribe and hear it commercial-free, or pay more and download every album in a variety of formats, or download selective albums and pay what you think is fair?between $5 and $18. (The average is around $9.) The site also earns money via commercial licensing. Revenues are split 50/50 with the musicians. Buckman said that about 12 percent of Magnatune’s subscribership is in Japan.
Two other presenters, Ian Murdock and Miguel de Icaza, are prominent members of the open source community who now work for technology companies. Murdock is the man behind Debian Linux and was chief technology officer at the Linux Foundation before joining Sun as vice president of developer and community marketing in March 2007. De Icaza co-founded the GNOME project and now heads up the Mono project at Novell, where he is vice president, open platform solutions.
“One of the big lessons of open source and communities is you can cooperate and compete at the same time,” Murdock said. “Linux is a great example. Look at all the companies that are involved in Linux development, including IBM, Intel, and AMD. Some of these companies are fiercely competing with each other, but by collaborating as well, they can create a broader ecosystem that ultimately benefits everyone.”
Murdock said that open source has done for software what Moore’s Law has done for hardware: relentlessly driven costs down by creating commodity markets?where the difference is not so much the feature set as the product support and related products, the so called “software ecosystem.” “Commoditization is a great thing for technology consumers, because it means you can do more with less. The whole bottom-up trend is directly related to that. It’s so easy to get your hands on technology and do interesting things without needing permission. But open source is only free if your time is free?and no one’s time is free.”
A startup company, with more time than money, may see open source software as an opportunity to keep expenses down. But as that company grows, priorities shift, and at some point, it’s cheaper to bring in outside expertise. That, said Murdock, is Sun’s selling proposition. “We can step in and say: not only do we understand this technology, but we built a lot of it. We can help you direct more of your resources to what your customers are going to see. That’s how you make money from open source. The entry point has changed, but there are still opportunities to bring value, even when the initial software doesn’t cost anything.” (Whether this revenue model will work remains uncertain. After the event, Sun reported a quarterly loss after five successive profitable quarters. Shares plummeted and the company said it would lay off up to 2,500 employees.)
At Novell, Miguel de Icaza is heading the Mono project, whose aim is to allow Linux, Solaris and other developers to build cross-platform .NET applications. De Icaza was at LugRadio Live to talk about Moonlight, a Mono-based implementation of Silverlight, Microsoft’s answer to Adobe Flash. As with Mono, Moonlight represents a kind of tightrope walk for Novell, whose dealings with Microsoft are both adversarial and cooperative.
“The project is important to us because if Silverlight takes off without being accessible to Linux users, Linux would again be a second class citizen,” he said, referring to the long period when the Adobe Flash player had no Linux version. “There’s already a lot of technologies that make Linux feel like a second class citizen, and we didn’t want Silverlight to be another one of those. With our involvement in .NET, this was clearly in our turf, so it’s our duty to make that happen.”
De Icaza has been working to keep a smooth working relationship between his company and Microsoft. “Like the Dalai Lama said, the best way of changing your opponent’s view is to respect them. So instead of flaming or attacking, we’ve been trying to build bridges to their engineers. It’s been a long process, we started five years ago. And now, with Microsoft’s agreement, a lot of things are a lot easier. I think there are forces of change inside Microsoft. They are open sourcing a lot stuff.” Microsoft, he said, is starting to get it, but the process is gradual. “We might not like their proprietary licenses. I would like the source to be free. But not everything in Google is open either, and we still get some good things.”
On his blog, de Icaza wrote that Moonlight is part of a broader Microsoft move to become more open. He cites the open sourcing of IronPython, IronRuby, the Dynamic Language Runtime (DLR), and the JS library for ASP.NET, as well as the Microsoft Public License (MS-PL) and Microsoft Reference License (MS-RL). As for Moonlight, “there’s definitely a strategic interest in Microsoft’s end, and of course, they could have ported it on their own. We presented the case that people in the open source community would be more willing to adopt Silverlight if there was an open source implementation, as opposed to it being another Flash. And we argued that we should do it in an open source fashion.” It’s an argument that de Icaza and his team seem to have won.
- LugRadio Live USA: a Podcast Excerpt
- The LugRadio Live event also included the recording of a podcast, filled with the usual verbal jousting?amplified for the stage--plus tamer comments from the American audience. The following is a cleaned-up excerpt on the topic of software usability. I didn’t catch who said what, but I’m not sure it matters. The podcast itself can be found at the LugRadio site: April 21, 2008, season 5, episode 16?spoken in a language resembling English.
- “We were going round and round about the obvious need to make software more useable so that people can use it. And eventually Chris and I snapped and asked: is there not a base limit below which you can say: ‘you’re too stupid to own a computer.’”
- “From an open source point of view, we want people to use our software. If you believe that open source is the way forward to produce better software, I think it’s hard to justify that point of view.”
- “But a central processor has more parts to it than anything else ever made. It’s the most complicated thing you can build. Why should they be so easy to use?”
- “Do you think it’s reasonable for people to drive a car without passing a driving test?”
- “When I started using Linux, my dad came in with one of those books and said: ‘I’m going to learn Linux in 10 minutes.” And I thought?‘No you’re not. You are going to fail at Linux.” But he came through. At the time, I thought?you need a license to drive a car. You should need a license to use a computer.”
- “This is the man with whom you share genes.”
- “Yeah, and you’re mom’s the other half.”
- “But Linux has gotten easier. He uses Ubuntu on his laptop.”
- “But there should be a cutoff point.”
- “But your cutoff point is basically: anyone who is not you.”
- Audience member: “Don’t throw anything at me, but Microsoft Visual Studio is so smart, you don’t even need to know how to program.”
- “I don’t understand that. My dad wants listen to MP3s. I can’t tell him?here’s Visual Studio, go build yourself a player. My point is that anyone who does any programming at all is clearly above my baseline. I’m talking about really stupid people.”
- Audience member: “In the long term, computers will be smart enough to read people’s minds.”
- “It will be funny when a computer reads somebody’s brain?and then crashes.”