Metcalfe's column: From the ether

Open-source sendmail welcomes its commercial cousin, Sendmail Inc.

Let's start this week with some "open source" operating systems history. This will bring us from last week's letter of the week, lambda, to this week's, atsign (@). Then let's check on how open-source sendmail software, which uses atsign, is being leveraged by modern capitalists at Sendmail Inc.

Now look, we had open-source computer operating systems in the 1970s. They included MIT's Multics, MIT's Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS), Bolt Beranek and Newman's Tenex, and AT&T's Unix.

For example, we ran Tenex at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center on our two clones of Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-10 minicomputers.

But when minicomputers took off in the 1980s, it wasn't Multics, ITS, Tenex, or Unix that won out by freely proliferating their sources. Modern capitalists at Digital won in minicomputers by selling binaries of their proprietary VMS operating system, developed by the same David Cutler soon to deliver binaries of Windows 2000 from Microsoft.

If you're an old programmer, you probably used atsign (@) back then to indicate indirect addressing in assembly languages. You wrote @1234 to tell your computer not to use 1234 as an operand address, but rather to use the address found in location 1234. I wrote a lot of PDP-10 atsigns in my day, and so did one Ray Tomlinson, who was working with Tenex in 1970 on early versions of Internet host software.

Tomlinson wrote the Tenex software that composed, delivered, and read the first Internet e-mail. He doesn't remember what the first e-mail said, but we all remember what ASCII character Tomlinson chose to separate his e-mail address from the name of the server where his mailbox was kept. He chose atsign (@). Ray@BBN meant Ray at BBN.

Over the next decade, name and mail protocols changed, but atsign persisted. And one Eric Allman led the development of sendmail, to this day the Internet's primary (75 per cent) mail server software.

Finally, in 1998, Allman formed Sendmail Inc. to develop, sell, and support a commercial version of the software. Allman decided to turn professional while continuing to give away an open-source sendmail with rights to modify, redistribute, and use noncommercially. Read all about Allman's dual-mode software at www.sendmail.org, sendmail.com, and now sendmail.net.

I recently spoke with Greg Olson, CEO of Sendmail Inc. He reports that in the first 10 months of availability, 1600 of sendmail's two million open-source installations chose to buy Sendmail Inc.'s commercial installation and maintenance tools with support.

I asked Olson why Sendmail Inc., which was founded in 1998, hasn't publicly offered its stock yet. Red Hat is public, with a price-revenue (PR) ratio over one thousand. It's developing, selling, and supporting Linux, also famous open-source software. Olson says Sendmail is preparing to go public. Wonder what PR ratio Olson has in mind.

Meanwhile, Sendmail is announcing partnerships in developing its Internet-messaging platform. Olson says there is a major opportunity for e-mail in commerce, most of which is still conducted awkwardly using paper.

Sendmail Inc. intends to add extensions for message tracking, security, and transaction reliability to the Internet's e-mail standards. Early applications will include filtering, unified messaging, direct mail marketing, automated response, document distribution, certified notice systems, billing, and payments.

Sendmail Inc. supports Windows NT, Linux, and Unix from BSD, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun Microsystems. Prices for a commercial Sendmail installation vary by platform and number of processors, from $US500 to $500,000, including consulting and customization.

If buying commercial sendmail becomes popular, then maybe free open-source sendmail will go the way of ITS. This is probably also what the capitalists developing Windows 2000 have in mind for Linux.

May the best software win.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe used to be rmm@mit, but now he's metcalfe@idg.net. E-mail names, addresses, and protocols come and go, but there's always atsign (@).

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