Open-Source Evangelist Will Work For Free Software, But Not For Free


Open-source software evangelist Bruce Perens is looking for work, but corporate America isn't biting.

It's not that companies aren't interested in his ideas for revolutionizing computing and saving money by embracing nonproprietary software with shared code.

Rather, his reputation as a gadfly at hacker conferences and as an outspoken critic of Microsoft Corp. tends to overshadow his resume.

Unwilling to toe company lines, Perens rarely misses a chance to bellow against the injustices he believes proprietary software encourages. His last job ended in August, when Hewlett-Packard Co. fired him.

The 45-year-old husband and father now struggles to find consulting work.

"I've had to work just to line up customers," Perens said at his hillside home east of San Francisco. "On the other hand, I don't have people calling up my boss at HP every week and saying, 'What is Bruce doing to us now?'"

Perens is an unflappable crusader: He spends at least a week each month at conferences, pushing open-source software on companies and governments from Iceland to Peru. He peppers journalists when his movement makes news and is prolific in online discussion forums.

Perens extols the virtues of shared code with the same passion that other social activists stump for equal access to quality education for the poor.

But what helped get him the job at HP in 2000 was his ability to explain to executives how promoting open-source software could make the company billions in consulting fees.

His open-source advocacy endears him to the volunteer programmers who contribute to projects such as the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server.

"He can argue issues without being fanatical and tends to be looking for common ground,"' said Alan Cox, a deputy to Linux project leader Linus Torvalds.

In the late 1990s, organizations started switching to nonproprietary software, whose basic code is free or low-cost _ no expensive licensing fees required. Now such big technology guns as HP and IBM are pushing it. Microsoft argues that the cost of maintaining Linux makes it more expensive than Windows over the long-term but acknowledges that open-source software is a threat.

Perens baited Microsoft relentlessly while at HP, which ships Windows on its desktop PCs.

In May 2001, he joined other activists blasting Microsoft as a "motor of incompatibility" that forced customers into regular, expensive upgrades. He launched a "Sincere Choice" movement to counter what he called Microsoft's insincerity in claiming it wasn't forcing dependence on consumers.

Perens later extended his crusade to intellectual-property restrictions. At an open-source conference in July, he threatened to show off DVD-hacking software to protest copy-protection schemes.

The crime carried jail time and a $500,000 fine, and Perens relented only after his boss at HP, Martin Fink, preceded him onstage and asked Perens not to perform the stunt.

Perens left HP a month later. Fink, an HP vice president, called it a "mutual separation" because his employee clashed with HP's mission.

"At a fundamental level, a corporation exists for customers and shareholders," Fink said recently. "While there's a responsibility to be good corporate citizens at the end of the day the corporation doesn't exist to take on causes per se."

Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer of Linux vendor Red Hat Inc., compared Perens _ as well as more radical free software evangelists Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman _ to American revolutionaries.

"Some of them are as crazy as Thomas Paine and some are only as crazy as Thomas Jefferson," Tiemann said. "But all those guys back then were quite radical and quite unable to tolerate the status quo."

Perens has long been an outcast.

His first-grade teacher in Lido Beach, N.Y., put him with mentally disabled students because of a speech impediment and neurological disorder that caused him to walk on his toes. A psychologist transferred him back within a week, but he soured to formal education.

As a teenager, Perens became a "phone phreak" who could whistle at a pitch that fooled the telephone company into providing free long-distance calls. He didn't know anyone outside of his area code, but scamming the phone monopoly pleased him.

"I've always been interested in how people can teach themselves and learn through technology," Perens said. "It's about the empowerment of the individual through technology, rather than the empowerment of a big company."

At New York Institute of Technology, Perens was a radio station manager who compiled program logs. He borrowed a friend's password to a mainframe computer, taught himself the Basic computer language and wrote a program to automate the chore.

"I fell so in love with the computer that I did not leave the terminal room for months," said Perens, who dropped out of college.

While waiting for his stock options to vest at Pixar Animation Studios, Perens worked on open-source software, including a stint as project leader on a variation of Linux.

In 1998, he wrote "The Open Source Definition," which listed the guidelines for creating and distributing free software. He was an early member of the Open Source Initiative, founded to promote free software to corporations.

Perens left OSI because of political infighting in 1999, but advocates said his efforts furthered the open-source movement.

"It's like asking where the film industry would be if it weren't for Lucas and Spielberg," said Brian Behlendorf, chief technology officer of CollabNet Inc. and a former OSI board member. "Definitely poorer, but it'd still be very much alive."

Perens wants a job as "open-source politician" but knows a straight programming job would let him spend more time with his toddler, Stanley.

Programming also could disentangle him from the movement's widening gap between moralism and commercialism.

"There's justice in programming," he said. "If you do it correctly, it runs. If you don't, it doesn't. There's none of this messiness of human relationships."

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