Bruce Perens

Bruce Perens is ubiquitous. At least, it's sometimes seemed that way; he's known to computing specialists as the primary author of the open source definition, the former project leader for Debian, a senior programmer with Pixar, the creator of Electric Fence, and a prolific advocate of GNU/Linux and related open source matters. At the end of 2000, Hewlett-Packard hired him as a "strategic advisor." Last month, we interviewed him in's Interviews forum.

Opening salvos Sounds nice, Bruce: "strategic advisor." Does that mean we're free to think dark thoughts about you personally the next time HP releases hardware with Windows drivers, but none for Linux?

Bruce Perens: About HP hardware: it's going to take more than a month on the job to change the policies for design-in decisions over a company of 81,000 people. I'm currently dealing with printers (with some success on existing lines and good hope for future models) and have yet to have a chat with the notebook folks about Winmodems. Management has bought into operating system independence.

While you are thinking I'm ubiquitous, don't forget that I'm also founder of No-Code International, the organization that has lobbied to remove the Morse code examination for ham radio licensing. Funny you should mention No-Code International; although you don't know it, that is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about you. I'm always a bit tentative about straying away from narrowly technical subjects in these interviews, because I assume folks want to manage their own privacy. While we're roaming around, what happened to And how is Stanley doing? [See Resources for links to both.] Is it in your plans to crank computing down to less than a full-time part of your life?

Bruce Perens: Stanley is 8 months old now, and is a very happy and healthy little kid. I really should put up more photos of him -- it's another thing I've not had time to do. Being a parent of a child this young is really a full-time job for two people (and Valerie gets too much of the load).

I finally shut Technocrat down this morning, actually. It just wasn't getting the traffic, and I didn't have time to do it justice.

Opening HP You're working with printers now ("with some success") and aim to move on to notebooks in the future. What's that mean at a technical or daily-life level? What do you do that helps get source code for drivers out to the public, and why wasn't the job getting done before you arrived?

Bruce Perens: Actually, people were at work getting the printer drivers out before I showed up -- I can't claim to have originated anything there, although I've had some influence on policy.

The biggest problem is the technology they have licensed. Sometimes, they've licensed both intellectual property in the printer and in the host at the driver level from the same company, and the protocol used over the printer port is someone else's proprietary property. In an internal meeting, I joked that we couldn't move the print head (in our own printers) without an NDA. Sorting that out is a hassle. I don't think any new printers are going to be designed that way, thank goodness, but of course I'd like to get the current ones supported. I can imagine how stinging that crack was. So what can you do about restrictive licenses? Are you the one "sorting that out"? I'll push you again to answer: what do you do on a daily basis within HP?

Bruce Perens: Today I am:

Helping the Linux printer driver product manager sort out some troublesome patent issues Reading strategy documents and commenting on them Planning a "coffee talk" about Linux inside of HP Following up on some issues for Linux on Intel 64-bit architecture Writing my talk for LinuxWorld on stack-smashing security attacks Tomorrow, I will:

Make the once-a-week-or-so drive to HP Cupertino (it's about 1.5 hours from Berkeley) Meet with one of the HP vice presidents about Linux Meet with a very large company about partnering on a Linux product Visit the founder of a Linux distribution at his home You've got a full schedule -- you might almost as well be in business for yourself! Any plans to work with "the channels"? One of HP's historic strengths and challenges has been to work with "solution providers" (VARs, OEMs, and so on). From the outside, it looks to me as though there's a lot of possibility there to strengthen the open source story in a direction that helps HP's friends and maybe brings more direct revenue in, too.

Bruce Perens: I'm just beginning to meet people in sales and marketing. I will no doubt have some meetings with them soon. A big problem for me is focus -- there are 81,000 people in the company, three-fourths of whom touch Linux in some way, and more of them want my attention than I can handle right now.

The road to HP How did you end up with HP? The company arguably has accomplished more for open source than its more celebrated competitors, although it (you, now) sure don't get much publicity for it: e-speak might be used as much as Jini, HP was a real leader in launching CollabNet, and so on. Do you have anything to do with CollabNet so far? What do you think of the way it's turning out? Are there other structures -- internal to HP, or in the larger world -- that you want to fabricate to support open source development? Are you there now because of what HP has done in the past, or because of what you want to accomplish in the future?

Bruce Perens: I don't have much to do with CollabNet so far, although we certainly will talk. A big part of Collab's business is gated communities, something less than real open source. They know I'm not thrilled by that. One of Collab's customers, Vita Nuova, has been taking out full-page ads in Embedded Linux Journal to spread FUD about Linux. So, the Collab folks will get an earful about that from me.

As for why I am at HP: Well, one reason is that my venture capital business would have gone negative if we'd continued it. It's the wrong time to be in the stock market unless you have a very large fund and a lot of patience, and unfortunately I was in the position of having to raise money and then reinvest it, and it was being difficult to raise. I came to Linux Capital Group to build companies, and ended up being an investment salesman instead, and not a terribly successful one. And I'd also taken the job because it would support my open source activities, which are what I really want to do.

So, I looked around at companies, and sent out a few one-line emails that were like, "Would your company like to be associated with a high-status open source evangelist?" to people I knew at various companies. A few of them were interested, but HP showed the most interest. I think they are the best company for me anyway, because of the breadth of their product lines and markets -- from palmtops, personal computers, and consumer printers, all the way to the very high-end "big iron" machines. HP even owns a piece of the "Intel" 64-bit architecture because HP helped design it. Although I didn't happen to consider IBM, they come closest to HP's breadth of lines, and they are much more of a straight B2B company -- not so much consumer orientation.

Celebrity status Does HP have definite plans to "market" you? The company sure makes efforts to get Carly Fiorina out in the public eye, for example; for what mix of hard engineering and "public education" are you slated? Do you report to Jim Bell?

Bruce Perens: Marketing will try to show me off a bit, at trade shows, etc. And they did a press release when I was hired, and that got covered by a lot of the major technical news outlets. But I don't expect to get the same sort of star billing as Carly.

I report to Martin Fink, who is general manager of the Linux systems operation. Jim Bell, formerly director of the open source and Linux operation, is now working on consortium and standards projects.

As for hard engineering versus public education: I think it will be about half public work and half HP work. Public work includes writing free software, writing about free software, and public speaking. HP work is mostly talking with and emailing people about policy issues and product planning, and internal evangelism -- more speaking and writing about free software, but inside the company. Several times already you've mentioned that there's work to do within HP spreading open source benefits (or cost reductions, in many specific cases). I'm glad to hear you say that; I know I see a lot of situations where the key issue is not so much, "How do we go out and get this free Linux stuff?" as much as, "What sort of policies do we want for what's inside already?" Have there been any surprises for you since you started looking from the inside out? What kinds of milestones will tell you that you're successful at HP? Incidentally, it's past time that I ask you: should I be using the terms open source or free in this interview? I've chosen the former, so far, because that's how HP has tagged you; it's also a more general topic. I don't particularly intend to take a political stance in that, though, and I can change if it's more comfortable for you.

Bruce Perens: I try to make the point that open source and free software are really the same thing. When I wrote the Open Source Definition, it was called the Debian Free Software Guidelines; its name got changed later on. RMS considered it, at the time I wrote it, to be a good document about free software.

I correspond with RMS once or more a week, more than I correspond with any other free software leader. I think he understands the position I'm in -- trying to bridge the demands of business and the world of free software.

The biggest surprise so far has been how badly our hands are tied with respect to opening some equipment, because of the way we've licensed technology from other companies. Obviously, design-in decisions have to be different in the future. I don't think policy is nearly as much of a problem here as history. I can't say much about my milestones right now; I'd rather just show the community what I'm getting done as I go along.

Career engineering So, what do you give up by being a full-time employee? Does that constrain your propensity to talk about companies other than your employer -- so you can't say, for instance, "StarOffice is flawed," or "The Apple Source License doesn't work for me"?

Bruce Perens: My agreement with HP allows me to speak for myself any time I wish, but they want me to identify that I'm not speaking for HP when I do so. I'll criticize HP, too. My job description also includes challenges to HP management. Frankly, I've not seen that top management needs to be challenged. It's middle management and the rank and file that need to be shaken out of a rut, and even in their case I think they have been looking for the sort of change I bring; they just didn't have a standard-bearer to follow within the company.

Speaking of StarOffice, I think OpenOffice is great and hope they get the help they need to GNOMEify it.

Belt-tightening Have you seen the headline?

A decision by the management at Hewlett-Packard ... has hurt morale ... Jeff Matthews ... says he believes Fiorina will leave HP by midyear.... HP declined to comment on Fiorina's fate with the company.

This is from an article just published this week in Computer Reseller News. So: Accurate? (That is, are your HP colleagues counting pencils?) Consequential?

Bruce Perens: I don't know anything about counting pencils, and I'm actually not on the HP intranet yet -- I have yet to get it gatewayed through my home DSL, so I don't know what people are saying on the message boards. I've not heard any scuttlebutt about Carly, but I'd not blame her for what is going on right now -- it's the economy.

I do know that I have just shut down my VC operation and I've been helping to liquidate two companies where I happen to have been a board member. Of course we were dreaming of big money from stock and what we got were headaches: that's the breaks. The computer industry is suffering from the dot-com disaster and will continue to do so for a while.

HP's computer business does something like $22 billion per year. The Unix side alone accounts for something like $5 billion. So, I'm not in doubt of their health. Companies will have to tighten belts once in a while, and having the resolve to tighten them beats suffering the consequences of not doing it. I've myself had more stock than is comfortable to remember that wasn't worth the hassle of liquidating. Yes, I also have a bias toward thriftiness before calamity. So: Will you be on the HP intranet? Does its absence now constrain your productivity? Suppose for a moment that a climate of austerity becomes more prominent at HP. Is that necessarily good or bad for free software? Does the company see strategist Bruce Perens as a cost-center overhead item or a high-payoff, cost-reduction investment?

Bruce Perens:: It's clear that HP isn't used to hiring someone who starts out as a full-time telecommuter. But I'm out of the office in part to keep me thinking differently from the people who are inside it. HP seems to be very interested in people who can step away from the problem enough to generate a differing viewpoint. Being off the intranet hasn't hurt my productivity, although I sometimes don't see the video side of a conference call. About the worst difficulty it's caused is that I can't always access personnel services that they take for granted that employees will be able to reach. This problem will be fixed, and I'll also get a dedicated line on their internal phone system installed in my home. So, they aren't stunting my communications deliberately.

Linux becomes more important in bad economic times because IT managers are trying to squeeze the most out of their budgets, and they turn to commodity hardware and free software to do that. I do think there is some risk in my position. Having someone like me this close to the top of the org chart of a really big company is really radical, after all. But I am in a good position to tolerate risk. Because of Pixar's IPO I have no debt and a very nice home, and if HP didn't work out, I'd be OK. Good for you! Open source might well spread even more during lean times; I'm pleased to see your forward-looking attitude on that score. Good luck with your lofty-to-the-point-of-exposure position in the org chart. Along with risk, theory has it that that's where opportunity for reward also lies.

Sidebar: Vita Nuova responds

Vita Nuova Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Michael Jeffrey posted to this interview to respond to Perens's statements about his company:

Vita Nuova is not a customer of Collab, so you can spare them the earful on our account. Our ads have not been aimed at Linux at all, but rather those embedded Linux distributions that benefit from being eponymously named after a great contributor to the open source movement, whilst simultaneously discarding many of his principles. With one or two notable exceptions, most embedded Linux distributions attract royalties and do not provide access to all the source code under an open source license.

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