Originally Published: Monday, 27 August 2001 Author: The Staff of Linux.com
Published to: develop_articles/Development Articles Page: 2/4 - [Printable]

Interview with Eric Allman, CTO of Sendmail Inc.

Today, the first day of Linux World, San Francisco, Sendmail Inc. one of the world's most successful open source companies and IBM (big blue) announced a joint partnership to deliver powerful software for mainframes on Linux at a scale the world has perhaps not seen before. This terrific validation of the open source development method is cause for celebration. Linux.com caught up with Eric Allman, CTO of Sendmail, Inc. (who wrote the original sendmail back in 1981, arguably the most important piece of network software ever written) to ask the guy some questions.

The Mundie/Tiemann Debate  << Page 2 of 4  >>

Linux.com: Recently you watched the debate between Microsoft's Mundie and RedHat's Tiemann, what did you think of the debate in general?

Eric Allman: I thought Mr. Mundie's prepared remarks were quite good, but he seemed to not do anywhere near so well handling off-the-cuff questions. Mr. Tiemann has a tendency toward hyperbole which I thought diminished the impact of his statements, although clearly the crowd loved it. And speaking of the crowd, I was disappointed by some of them - they were clearly there to make a point (by trying to embarrass Mr. Mundie) rather than investigate the issues, so I felt that the Q&A portion was less interesting.

On the other hand, I was able to go to part of the press conference after the open session, which was much more interesting. Unfortunately, I didn't see the whole thing, but what I did see involved much more thoughtful (and harder) questions, with quite a bit of discussion. It was pretty clear that the press wasn't on Microsoft's side, but they were letting questions be fully answered and then asking follow-up questions; this was able to get a bit deeper into real issues.

Perhaps the person I was most impressed by was Tim O'Reilly, who very effectively moderated both sessions, and was truly interested in creating more light than heat.

Linux.com: I saw the debate also, and thought Mundie did well, all things considered. His description of an ecosystem, which includes an intellectual commons and a commercial software business makes a lot of sense. What doesn't he understand?

Eric Allman: Perhaps his description of an ecosystem is a bit too close to the mark. For example, one commercial enterprise might be lumber. There's nothing inherently wrong with lumber - it's a fabulous building material, and it is renewable if properly managed. But clear-cutting forests is not a responsible way to go about it, even if that is cheaper and more profitable in the short run. Clear-cutting often results in serious erosion, thereby making that land essentially unusable by anyone (well, except perhaps for the strip-miners) for a significant time.

To me, Microsoft has behaved like the clear-cutters of the computer software industry. He claims that Microsoft has been a major innovator. I don't believe that to be true - essentially all of their major "innovations" have been purchased rather than built - even most of Microsoft Office was built elsewhere and then purchased and incorporated. It's less risky to let the true innovators explore the territory and then reach down and pluck the winner - and crush the competition, essentially reducing genetic diversity, which slows down and in some cases may even stop evolution entirely. This doesn't enhance the ecosystem; it exploits and damages it. I have absolutely nothing against the ecosystem that Mr. Mundie describes- in fact, I think it's essential. But given that we do all share a single environment, be it a planet or an industry, the players must behave responsibly in order to ensure the perpetuation of that world.

Linux.com: Mundie made the point that our western society is formed on the idea of intellectual property ownership and getting paid for money invested in patent development. Proprietary software companies are starting to repeat basically the same message in response to Open Source: look, we all gotta eat. It's a valid question, what are your thoughts on that issue?

Eric Allman: Western society formed on that idea? Somehow I think that certain other principles such as cooperation between individuals to create a society based on principles of fairness rather than sheer strength might be closer to the mark. However, I do agree with the "we all gotta eat" principle, and I do believe that the concept of IP is intrinsically fair. However, I also believe that the IP situation, at least in the United States, has been corrupted. For example, it's possible now to file a vague patent, keep it alive by updating it periodically, and then revise it to match something interesting that someone else has done, get the patent issued, and then sue the true inventor for patent violation, even though the patent holder actually stole the idea from the inventor. This is simply broken.

Also, IP law has been revised to extend the life of many forms of IP; this is particularly true in copyright law. That seems backwards in a world where things are changing more quickly, not more slowly. This doesn't strengthen the inventor, it strengthens the companies that can afford to buy up IP and can afford large legal teams.

There are legitimate cases for extending patents - the classic case being drug companies that lose a substantial amount of their patent protection during the approval period. However, extending the life of patents isn't the way to fix this - for example, perhaps the clock shouldn't start ticking until the invention can actually be sold. There are ways to abuse this as well, but perhaps they aren't as onerous as the current system.

The Mundie/Tiemann Debate  << Page 2 of 4  >>