Some Impressions, part I Friday, July 16, 7 PM
The crew of mikro.org can be satisfied about the results of today. Fortunately, enough audience showed up, some 300-400, in the Berlin Kongressehalle, a typical modernist, cold war conference centre in the Tiergarten park, in the vicinity of the Reichstag and the Brandenburger Gate. The atmosphere is that of an easy going academic computer conference: a mostly male audience of programmers, sys-ops, some senior computer scientists, with the new class of IT-entrepreneurs in their role as New Kids on the Block. Remember, this is Germany, and it is not done here to misbehave by showing too much obvious commercialism on stage. This is an Open Source meeting, so business should be done in a decent way. Presentations today have been soft, sometimes even shy, careful, at times even dull. Unlike one would expect from the German debating culture. The Open Source movement has been tactical in avoiding controversies. It is managing to counter the obvious criticisms in a thoughtful, diplomatic way. In part, this is related to the fact that only now, 10-15 years after its beginning, Open Source is only now reaching a level of acceptance, with hyper growth rates. And the hype has to be fuelled. In this stage it remains important to explain the very basics of collaborative software production. The organisers of this Berlin meeting must have had a pretty broad public in mind, as most of the day was spent with short presentations of both free projects, and its related support businesses. The morning session started off in a rather different manner, with a dense, brilliant lecture by Wolfgang Hagen, an expert on computer history. Hagen is typical representative of the German techno-determinist school, which states that hardware is dictating software. In other words: software was, and always will be a by-product of the hardware and its logic. The speed and mode of calculation is merely a question of the flip-flops, the frequency of the electronic pulses. In the first generation of computers the software was literally inscribed in the architecture of the hardware, and only gradually became a matter of language, so Hagen. The historical images of the first decade of the computer do always impress audiences. It is good to keep in mind that the earliest computer network, and the Internet, can be found in Whirlwind, the computer built during the Korean War for the Pentagon. And that the first programmers conference took place in 1954 as a results of Whirlwind, which then let, amongst others, to Fortran, developed by John Backus, which Hagen used as reference to the early models of ENIAC. The two speakers which followed took the historical thread further to BARN, bitnet and usenet and the way Internet was introduced in Germany at the academic research centres. Some interesting remarks were made about the dominating role of German politics, which until recently has tried to come up with very ordered, top-down standards which had to counter the chaotic, distributed American models such as TCP/IP. But these German dreams, and of those other Europeans have long gone. It is now a matter of keeping up. Or not quiet. The participation and development of Open Source projects has a long and rich history. KDE, the K Desktop Environment is a good example (www.kde.org). It originates from here. German participation in BSD, linux, apache and xfree86 are considerable. It is much more a question of visibility in culture at large, which seems to be the problem. In this highly technological country, the computer has had a bad image in the public opinion, and in that sense WOS is a important breakthrough, putting the Open Source within a larger cultural context. Controversies will come later, for sure. Wizards of OS
Some Impressions, part II Saturday, July 17, 1999
Before we go to the second day, let’s not forget to mention Friday night. First Andreas Haas spoke, a German marketing guy of Apple. Recently Apple launched some ‘public code’ but had to rearrange its licences under pressure of OS activists. It is a learning company, Haas admitted. Still, this did not impress the free software community whatsoever, also not this German audience. A fancy demo of the latest version of QuickTime is not a real issue on a conference like this. His sales talk failed in a dramatic way. After an hour of Q & As this poor Andreas could only repeat the obvious that Apple just has to make profit and ship products and could therefor not do this or that… Bits of open QuickTime4 source, which might become the basis for the new MPEG4, was his only offer. Apple has always been the radical opposite of free and open standards. They stopped licensing their hardware. The MAC OS will not be free software in the foreseeable future. So much for Apple. Tim O’Reilly, the publisher of countless of the free software manuals (Perl, Linux, Apache, etc.) came up with the statement that he indeed had made a lot of millions of $. Walking up and down the stage, like real Net gurus do, he gave a speech which can be read, almost word by word, in one of O’Reilly’s recent anthologies ‘Open Sources, Voices from the Open Source Revolution.’ (which gives quite a good overview, btw). Unlike the geek masses, Tim O’Reilly is travelling to other universes within the computer branch. This might be the reason that he took the role of the willing messenger, explaining the ‘community’ that the Open Source revolution will be over soon. Not because it failed. Quite the opposite. Simply because there are even bigger events on the horizon: commercialisation and total corporate take-over. O’Reilly wouldn’t call it that way, of course. He speaks of ‘infoware’ taking over from software. That’s gonna be the real commodity, turning both hard- and software into second grade instances. Turning them into ‘free’. ISPs, operating systems, browsers, webspace, e-mail, they are all not going to be the big money makers. “Amazon.com as an application.” That mystery is on Tim’s mind. “Who is going to be the Microsoft of Open Source?” Some say the Redhats and SuSEs, the Linux distributors. Others say the OS service and support firms. Tim would say the applications which run on top of free software. Virtual money is about to make the free software question irrelevant. The volume of capital which is circulating at the higher level of applications and e-services which build on top of the Net will gently push aside old software configurations. Roots are fading away, getting irrelevant (sorry, Kittler). Capital, with all its weight is about to smash the Open Source movement. Not with repression. Not in an ignorant way. There is a growing respect, with bits of appropriation here and there. But life goes on. Soon OS will no longer be an issue. Mozilla should be a good test case. The open source code of this once so powerful browser hasn’t revolutionised the landscape. The opposite happened: Netscape was bought, and neutralised by AOL, a topic which strangely wasn’t discussed in Berlin. Tim O’Reilly was the only speaker at WOS who raised some broader economic issues, though speaking in secret codes, which probably few analyst’s being able to decrypt his messages. Next week he speaks at Microsoft. Linux people won’t starve, that much was clear at WOS. Economics is not even an issue for them. They already got jobs. Some are even being paid to write free software. For the coding class, hobbyists, midnight hackers, economics is not a real topic. The same can be said of Rishab Aiyer Ghosh’s Cooking Pot Market concept, which he presented at WOS in a professional, routine manner. It is all true, but of diminishing value, supposing one want to come up a somehow relevant power analysis of today’s ICT-industry. Such concepts as the gift economy not just lack subversion. This complaint can be overcome, pointing at the potential power free software has to cripple such giants as Microsoft. So they say. Empires may rise and fall. But such mega-corporations also look ahead. Microsoft might already have abandoned the Windows market in 2010 and make money with other features, such a on-line service, and content. For Ghosh the Internet itself is the market. OS is about reputation, fame, some e-cash or other micro-payments is sufficient, for those who make a good buck anyway. People with such secure lives have a radically different attitude towards time, money and community, compared to the gambling logic of the Silicon Valley (and alley) class, obsessed with their first 20 million $. For the time being start-ups simply have no time, and interest to contribute to free software. The core work is still being done from within bigger institutions, such as universities, state and corporate research labs, and by a growing number of leisure time programmers. This production framework is not likely going to change any time soon. Back to the Kongresshalle. The crypto discussion on Saturday morning was an interesting one. Not just because of GNU/PG, a German open source alternative to PGP. The German state seems in a phase of transition. Crypto and privacy is not longer approached with the 1977 ‘anti-terrorism’ police state attitude. Instead, the current government introduced a law, supporting strong crypto in order to give both companies and citizens the necessary protection against US-interests, and other evil forces who are after our private data. And the German State, one could add (‘Protect us against our own State’). Keywords here: sensibility dialogue, confidence. No more Bonn-style fighting. Away with the polarising debate culture. A remarkable ‘dutchification’ of the Berlin Republic. Let hackers, industry, privacy experts, and the Justice department just talk it over and come up with flexible, pragmatic rules. Open Source, of course. Na, bitte. And who will monitor the Chaos Computer Club? Some GNU/Linux-related topics are obvious. It is known that in Mexico Linux will be used in all schools. France too. In Germany, Linux has been installed on tens of thousands of computers at schools. Africa could also benefit. So will Kosov@. It is also clear that lawyers will not like free software. But it remains less obvious who is going to write down the ‘Lex Informatica’, Lutterbeck and Ishii referred at in their weak presentation. Not a word who is going to define the parameters of ‘Internet Governance’. The New Economy panel was a disaster, to put it mildly. Kevin Kelly as has some spirit, and performance style, when selling his New Economy belief system. Perhaps something to look into next year. The next part, Open Content, had much more on offer. The most advanced lecture came from one of the two women speaking, Jeanette Hoffmann, who has been studying the history of Internet standards. Her case study on the Internet Engineering Task Force brought up a whole range of new, worrisome issues. The IETF is about to break apart because of its own bureaucracy. Structures have become too big, and conflicts of interests have become apparent, with an increase of members working within corporations, also doing research, having to regulate themselves. This could as well happen to Open Source projects as they are based on the same principles of decentralised self governance. Can the IEFT be reformed from within? The ICANN story, so Hoffmann, only shows were things end up when old structures are being overturned by the new type of closed, corporate driven, working groups. Between Kittler’s plea for Open Hardware, and the small private initiative of public content, gutenberg.de, the presentation of net.art by Alexei Shulgin, looked disappointing. For an audience not familiar with this genre, Shulgin presented some old projects of jodi, his own form art, and the WebStalker (“the final art piece”), stating that net.art was dead. It all looked tragic, nostalgic, referring to some good old days when there was still a net.art community, exploiting the self-referentiality of the new medium. For Shulgin net.art was different. Having a questionable use, unlike free software, net.art has been about ideas, not about source (code), and has been appropriated by art institutions. That’s all about Open Content? No. Berlin could have offered more here. The closing evening session offered two speakers. Benny Haerlin, from Greenpeace, given a impressive talk about the Source Code of Life, and the strategy of companies such as Monsanto, to patent all possible, profitable genes of plants, animals and humans. And a fairly standard one man show of Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation. More about him in a separate interview. Mikro.org, one and a half years after it’s founding can be proud this first big conference, after last years early event net.radio days, and their monthly lounges. Berlin is not an easy place to work, not having an office, lacking all sorts of funding. No fear too for becoming a dull institution. Micro has successfully left the yuppie culture of Mitte, with its dying contemporary arts hype which thrived for a while on sub-cultural energies of the ‘young, new capital’. Micro made contact with existing realities, in this case the growing Linux movement. Now it can easily make the next step into the familiar territory of reflection and critique on the ‘New Economy’.