The man who spoke out once too often

02 Oct 2002 View Comments
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Given today's corporate accounting scandals, mass layoffs and mergers and acquisitions battles, most organisations have enough critics without deliberately inviting, or indeed paying, people to find faults.

But that was what Hewlett Packard (HP) did when it offered Bruce Perens the role of senior strategist for Linux and open source. His remit? To "challenge HP management" while increasing the credibility of the company's Linux programme and advising the company on how to work with the open source community.

Then came the Compaq merger. Three weeks ago Perens was 'released'. In an interview given to vnunet.com's sister title Computing shortly before he left HP, Perens explained why he was attracted to corporate life at HP, but unknowingly revealed why he would be too much for HP/Compaq to handle.

Among open source evangelists, Perens is not as well known as the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman or Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary.

But dig into his past and you'll discover that he is "the person who first announced open source to the world", and the primary author of The Open Source Definition, which outlined the philosophy that software should be freely viewed and modified.

"As a spokesman and one of the leaders of Free Software and Linux, I helped grow the field from a hobbyist's curiosity to a multibillion dollar industry," Perens claimed. From when he joined HP in December 2000 to shortly before he left, Perens helped to increase the number of on-site Linux projects six-fold.

Cry freedom
Yet, while drawing a salary from the new HP, Perens knew he did not have the freedom to express the views that he frequently claimed to have.

He found that there was always a line to be drawn when attempting to change things in big business, rather than haranguing them from outside, as Richard Stallman chooses to do.

To his credit, Perens had a big impact on the way some major organisations originally decided to approach open source. He publicly criticised IBM after its first attempt at an open source licence, and Big Blue duly worked with Perens to write the next version.

He achieved the same success with Sun Microsystems which, after considering his criticism of its 'no charge, but not open source' release of StarOffice, changed its licensing to General Public Licence and created OpenOffice.org.

Then there was his criticism of Apple's first 'not quite open source' licence; each of his points was addressed in the next version.

But Perens has insisted that it's not because of any subsequent bad feeling that Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, who once employed Perens as a senior systems programmer at Pixar Animation Studios, no longer returns his emails.

"I think Steve pretty much treats any ex-employee that way when he has no further use for them," explained Perens.

"All millionaires are nuts and Steve is no exception. But he never really gave me a problem while I was at Pixar because I was even more arrogant than him. I'm off his radar screen now, but I don't take it personally."

Indeed, if there's one thing Perens's childhood and teenaged years prepared him for, it's learning how to care little about what people think of him or how they treat him.

Early difficulties
Born with cerebral palsy, Perens recalled how he spoke with slurred and slow speech until he was 18 by which time years of speech therapy had pretty much ironed out the problems.

"In first grade, I remember the teacher taking me to the retarded children's class," he said. "When my parents found out, they came to school and raised hell.

"I was examined and found to have a reasonably high IQ so I was taken back to the original teacher's class, and she never stopped resenting that."

By the end of his first year at school, Perens still hadn't learned to read. However, an aunt taught him to do so during two months' summer vacation and from then on nothing held him back.

It was from this challenging foundation that Perens claims to have developed his "geek arrogance", being someone who is alienated and, in turn, alienates others.

Perens is articulate and charming, yet there's a strong childlike quality about him; particularly his facial expressions and gestures, which are reminiscent of Tom Hanks in the movie Big.

You're talking to an adult who has some of the mannerisms of a seven year-old. These include throwing himself wholeheartedly into fights, albeit those of the intellectual and verbal kind, and considering unnecessary restrictions as particular enemies.

For example, Perens founded No-Code International to get rid of the "antiquated and unnecessary" Morse Code test for ham radio operators (of which he is one) before they can be licensed to communicate using frequencies below 30MHz.

Now there's just the International Telecommunications Union to convince before this requirement will be eliminated completely, possibly by next year.

"The whole point of ham radio is to allow people to talk to each other," he said. "We won't stop them tapping, but at least they will be allowed to talk first."

Perens has also stuck his teeth into the restrictions written into the controversial 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is where he and his former employer did not see eye to eye.

Lovely jubbly
Brits living in the US can't buy Only Fools and Horses on DVD in the UK, transport it across the Atlantic, and enjoy a regular dose of the British comedy on US DVD players because of the regional restrictions embedded into the machines by the manufacturers.

But Perens can: he bought a pre-modified machine on eBay, maintaining that he was too lazy to do this for himself.

And he had every intention of demonstrating how to hack DVD players at a presentation he was scheduled to give at the recent O'Reilly Open Source Convention in San Diego. Had he done so, he could have faced a massive fine or been thrown into prison.

Perens was warned off by his boss at HP's Linux System Division, after which he was quoted as saying: "I care more about this than getting myself fired, but the fact is that getting fired today would have hurt HP's Linux programme."

But surely he has some sympathy for the film studios, which are only trying to run a legitimate business? He worked in that industry for 19 years (with credits on A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2 to show for it) and has earned himself a comfortable financial cushion from selling his stock in Pixar.

"There has to be a happy medium between the total lockdown that [the film studios] desire and people like myself who want to be able to play this material on something that isn't quite authorised by the vendor," said Perens.

"If I were running things, I might charge for the films like everyone else does, but I'd not go overboard in restricting 'fair use' copying. I'd also use and produce free software for operating the film business."

Given that he doesn't come across as your average big-company type, didn't Perens feel like a fish out of water at HP?

"Sure, that's a constant conflict on both sides," he explained. "HP has something like 100,000 people, and not many will ever understand what I do. And given that we've recently gone through a merger I'm worried that HP might lose the values that attracted me to the company."

Redmond bashing
But he never stopped voicing his opinions, particularly his criticisms of Microsoft, even though HP is the largest Microsoft system vendor.

"Every company in the world just saw a price increase of about 45 per cent on some Microsoft products and had no choice but to pay it, unless the first time they heard about it they started to look at Linux or OpenOffice," he pointed out.

"What's the moral here? Monopolies are really bad for customers. We've fallen into a couple of different traps as far as Microsoft is concerned. First, we pay too much. Second, we settle for too little."

Perens admitted that Microsoft doesn't like the attacks, and there was a perception within HP that they possibly damaged the HP/Microsoft relationship.

"On the other hand, consider the way in which Microsoft can do things to hurt your company because it has the ability to block business coming to you, thereby affecting your stock price. HP has a fiduciary responsibility to its stockholders and that includes maintaining a level of independence," he argued.

Such comments offer clues as to what Perens really cares about. Not the software industry per se, but its customers.

It's them he's battling for when he attends meetings of the WWW Patents Policy Committee where, he said, many companies are represented and the customer is not always high on the list of priorities.

On one occasion he was invited to explain open source business methods and someone asked him how many software vendors had adopted the model.

"My response was: this is terrible for the software vendors, but it's good for the customers and the fact that you are asking how many software vendors have bought into this really reveals your bias of considering this from the profit viewpoint rather than the customer viewpoint," he explained.

Money matters
Yet this isn't some other-worldly idealist speaking. Money is important to Perens. He is grateful to be free of debt, thanks largely to the Pixar windfall, and when he realised that the dotcom bubble was about to burst he decided not to waste his 'good idea' on a venture that wasn't going to get a lot of funding.

He shut down Linux Capital Group, of which he was co-founder, president and major stockholder, and sent out a one-line email to five high-tech companies, including HP, offering his services. IBM was not on the list because Perens didn't feel he'd fit into its corporate culture.

"HP was the most enthusiastic, and we set up an interview right away. It turned out that Martin Fink had just been made general manager for Linux within the company and wanted input on strategy," he said.

They negotiated an arrangement whereby Perens was able to speak publicly - well, almost - on what is important to him and the open source community.

He saw that he was the only person at HP apart from the chief executive who could follow his own agenda in front of customers, as long as it was clearly a personal opinion.

This approach is at least appreciated by HP's corporate clients, many of which approached Perens after his presentations to comment on how rare it is these days to hear from someone who talks about customers.

Not a bad life, then, for someone who until three years ago was "just a guy in a cubicle at Pixar" participating in some free software projects and playing around with Linux in his spare time.

Books etc
To add to his increasing profile - whether sitting on global committees or debating issues with legislators in Washington DC - Prentice Hall has published The Bruce Perens Open Source series under its HP Professional Books brand.

Perens, who admitted to not having written any of them, is credited with creating and editing books which cover topics including business software development, open source languages, network programming and web tools, and looks forward to being heralded as 'the Peter Norton of Linux'. Those plans are no doubt on hold.

Perens knows that he is living his own fantasy. The money from HP helped him save for his two year-old son's college fund and his own retirement.

"If I had more money I'd be doing what I do today, but without having to worry about running into trouble with my employer over the things I say. Money makes it easier to spread your ideas. I'm not interested in yachts or Lear jets," he claimed.

That being said, for a person who struggled with speech until he was 18 years old, Perens has developed the gift of the gab for getting what he wants out of life. Inside HP or out.

Additional reporting by Colin Barker.

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