'Dilbert' Creator, Open-Source Maverick Address EclipseCon


"Dilbert" creator Scott Adams took the stage at EclipseCon on Tuesday to describe some of the high points and pitfalls along "my strange odyssey from cubicles to cartoonist," while veteran software architect Robert "r0ml" Lefkowitz opened Wednesday's sessions with a keynote address that threw a few firebombs at the open-source software field.

Both speakers had the crowd laughing, Adams with his comic-strip eviscerations of corporate culture and Lefkowitz with his passionate examination of open-source absurdities.

Adams sprinkled his keynote with a few "lessons for success" -- "work hard" and "get lucky" were the two primary themes. But the main draw of his talk was the behind-the-scenes look at his iconic comic strip.

After 15 years in the telecommunications industry, Adams dropped off that career track to focus full-time on his creative work, but he never fully escaped the inanities of the corporate world. The cartoonist cracked up most of the crowd with the tale of his workaround for an unwritten rule in newspaper comics that prohibits depictions of a gun being fired. When an editor nixed a strip Adams submitted showing a police officer shooting a suspect, he redid the strip to make the gun a doughnut -- one that, inexplicably, fired bullets. The doughnut passed muster, which allowed the strip to be published.

But Adams' biggest laugh came when he pulled out one of the many complaint letters he's received to demonstrate his response to a trademark-infringement nastygram. After using the phrase "ant farm" in a strip, Adams got a series of increasingly heated missives from lawyers for Uncle Milton Industries, which apparently holds a trademark on "ant farms." They wanted an apology and retraction for his generic use of the term.

"It became clear that as long as there's dirt and ants and glass and people who will pay money to see them pressed together, there would be money to pay the lawyer," Adams said.

Resigned to running a correction, Adams published a strip with a character asking what phrase, in lieu of "ant farm," should be used for "a habitat for worthless and disgusting little creatures." Dogbert's answer: "Law school."

Uncle Milton Industries is apparently still at it: Tech blog Engadget recently got a similar nastygram for its casual reference to ant farms.

Lefkowitz opened day two of EclipseCon, running through Thursday in Santa Clara, Calif., with a keynote taking aim at some of the open-source movement's axioms -- a gauntlet-throwing move at a conference dedicated to an open-source development platform.

After two decades in the IT trenches on Wall Street and a stint as AT&T Wireless chief technical architect, Lefkowitz has developed an idiosyncratic take on open-source software, colored by his past in the financial industry. With an amusingly convoluted argument and a series of graphs, he "demonstrated" that market economics dictate that no-cost software will always be inferior to commercial offerings. He then turned around and showed a calculation for determining the point at which maintenance fees for a commercial software product become a bad investment, relative to the financial value of the updates they purchase rights to.

The ideology of the open-source moment is built atop some odd assumptions, Lefkowitz argued, including the idea that buyers need access to code because product designers can't be trusted to get it right. Couple that with the extensive disclaimers routinely attached to all software, commercial or free, and you have a philosophy standard in the software industry that's at odds with other fields.

Flashing a photo of a pill bottle, Lefkowitz quipped, "Sorry this drug was defective. I'm sorry you got sick but, you know, we included the chemical formula on the bottle! You could have fixed it yourself!"

Lefkowitz also challenged the idea, popular in the open-source community, that software patents are a scourge holding back developers who would prefer to see their programs used for noble ends.

He recounted a conversation with a friend who vehemently opposes software patents but doesn't object to patents in other industries, such as pharmaceuticals. Without the protection of patents, drug companies wouldn't be motivated to do development, but in the software field, developers have other motivations, the friend believed.

Flashing a slide of Oracle chief Larry Ellison, Lefkowitz offered a caustic ode to the "noble-hearted people" in the software industry unconcerned with profits. A slide of Bill Gates illustrated his sarcastic follow-up that the idea of someone involved in drug research giving away billions to better world health was, of course, inconceivable.

While Lefkowitz's talk featured potshots at a number of open-source sacred cows, attendees seemed engaged and appreciative.

Progress Software Principal Software Engineer Sunil Belgaonkar said he found the talk interesting and agreed with Lefkowitz's argument that the open-source world needs to be less obsessed with geeky issues and more focused on the needs of software users.

Ed Merks, an IBM Rational senior technical staff member, enjoyed Lefkowitz's unusual take on the relative financial values of open-source and commercial offerings.

"Yesterday's keynote was funny. This was funny and insightful," Merks said.