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Meet the Perens

Joe Barr catches up with former HP Linux strategist Bruce Perens

(LinuxWorld) — If you've kept one eye open watching industry news the past week or two, you've seen the stories about Bruce Perens and his open-source licensed book series with Prentice Hall. I'll get in a few words on that book series later in the column, but first I'll try to put things in context.

Bruce Perens is a fascinating individual, and he probably knows his way around the suit side of the house better than any other leading figure in the free/open-source software movements. I had the chance to visit with Perens for nearly an hour last week. I couldn't help but get off-topic. In addition to the books, I was supposed to be talking to him about his consulting work, grants and donations — you know, the things he has been doing to try to keep food on the table since his departure from HP.

However, as I mentioned, Perens is very interesting. The more I asked him, the more I wanted to hear his thoughts on other things. If he hadn't had to keep an appointment with the New York Times a half-hour after our interview was supposed to end, I might still be asking him questions.

Choosing his departure from HP last fall as the starting point, I asked Perens if he had any regrets about his HP experience. He said, "My two years at HP was just a great time, overall. My only regret is that it couldn't go on longer." Later, he added: "One of the very nice things about the HP position was that they gave me a reasonably nice salary and pretty much let me do what I felt like. It's harder now in that I have to go out there and sell my own services." Perens has a wife (Valerie) and a son (Stanley) to feed as well as himself. As many of you are intimately aware, the current economy doesn't make this the most affluent of times.

His consulting company is just getting off the ground. His clients (they must remain anonymous for the moment) are companies and industry organizations that want to get more involved with free/open-source software. His experience at HP, where he pretty much wrote the book on corporate guidance in this strange new world, can be translated easily for other environments. Perens invites all such firms who "don't want to fall into the pitfalls that might be obvious to us but not to them" or who might need assistance to successfully "negotiate all of this licensing quagmire" to contact him.

Perens is also working with the Cyber Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. I had to ask exactly what the Institute was all about. "The Cyber Security Policy Institute just does grant-based work and comments on government software security policies," Perens explained.

Why is that important? So that free/open source software isn't trapped by a Hollings-type bill requiring the use of Palladium in all government computers, for one. Such an eventuality would be a very bad thing for the free/open-source communities. Microsoft, of course, is adamant about the use of free/open-source software in government: they feel it shouldn't be allowed.

Microsoft and the Mitre Report

An example in near real-time: the Mitre Report (See Resources for a link to this 60-page report in PDF format). Perens told me "Microsoft got extremely upset about this report and actually caused the report to be held back for six months. It was very interesting. Microsoft actually had so many criticisms of the Mitre Report that their general counsel is now given first credit in the attributions of the report because he contributed so much text."

However, Microsoft could not change the report's conclusion: removing free/open-source software would be very detrimental to the Department of Defense. The study, by the way, was conducted at the request of DISA, the DOD's IT folk. Its genesis was concern over proprietary licenses, which might ban the use of free/open-source software at the DOD. The study not only found widespread usage (more than a hundred free/open-source projects) in the DOD, it also reached the following conclusion:

The main conclusion of the analysis was that FOSS [free and open-source software] plays a more critical role in the DoD than has generally been recognized. FOSS applications are most important in four broad areas: Infrastructure Support, Software Development, Security, and Research...

Taken together, these factors imply that banning FOSS would have immediate, broad, and strongly negative impacts on the ability of many sensitive and security-focused DoD groups to defend against cyber attacks.

Perens, by the way, is at work on a response to heavy criticism of FOSS by Microsoft's Software Choice campaign, which is desperately trying to persuade the unwary that freedom is a bad thing, at least when it comes to software.

The Cyber Security Policy Institute will give Perens an opportunity to earn money by writing grants and doing the grant work, but it has its limits. For one thing, because George Washington University is a 501(C)3 organization, it cannot engage in lobbying. That's where the Global Policy Institute comes in. It allows Perens to engage in that activity. The Global Policy Institute Web site also provides a vehicle for the community to help support Perens in his efforts through PayPal. Perens says this money doesn't go into his pocket, it just helps pay for travel expenses. He does travel a bit. Very recently, he went to Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Boston on a single trip to speak to various groups about open source.

Now, about those books. The Bruce Perens series published by Prentice Hall is already at Barnes and Noble. At least the first two titles are; the third will be there in March. The series is the first of its kind to be covered by an open license (it's not the first book to have an open license, but it's the first series).

"These are print books," Perens said. "Everything is treated exactly like any other print book at Prentice Hall. We pay people the same, we wholesale them the same, all the way through."

A few months after publication, however, the books go online in an open-source manner. "We don't think that most people read their books on the screen, so we don't see that as a tremendous revenue drain," Perens noted.

What's needed for the series? Just about anything to do with free/open-source software. If you want to write a title in the series, just send Perens an e-mail at [email protected]. Perens asks that you include a writing sample and a book proposal with an outline, if possible. The main thing is not to just sit on top of a good idea.

The hour passed too quickly. The conversation had wandered to such diverse topics as how a hot-headed journalist like myself (Perens, apparently straight-faced: "Oh, why would you say that, Joe?") could attract lobbyists like Perens to work their magic on the Texas state legislature, fraudulent practices by the Business Software Alliance, the debate over the use of a proprietary tool in Linux kernel development, who will be the first tier-one OEM to offer Linux desktop preloads in the US, and a final timely and incendiary topic: TCO studies. Those random subjects don't fit neatly into the category of "What is Perens up to now?" They do make for a great column all by themselves. That's what we'll be serving next week in the second half of this Perens extravaganza.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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