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Geert Lovink: Eric S Raymond pays a visit to Microsoft

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Date: Thu, 24 Jun 1999 17:20:05 +0200 (CEST)
From: Geert Lovink <>
Subject: Eric S Raymond pays a visit to Microsoft

Into the Belly of the Beast
by Norman M. Jacobowitz <>

UPDATE! An eyewitness account has been added to the article. Click here to
go directly to it. 

It was not a normal day here in Seattle. Eggs were balancing on end. The
city was shrouded in a most un-summerlike mist and fog. And Eric Raymond 
was speaking at Microsoft.

That's right. Eric S. Raymond was the invited guest of Microsoft
Corporation, and gave a speech to their research group. June 21st was
indeed a freaky Summer Solstice day here in the Northwest.

Eric went into the belly of the beast ... and lives to tell about it. He
was kind enough to share his impressions of what went on, via this e-mail

Q: Can you give us a general overview of how and why you came to be
invited to speak at Microsoft's Redmond campus?

A: I was invited there by a member of one of Microsoft's research groups
that I met at PC Forum 99. She seemed OK, and offered an inducement far
more interesting than a speaker's fee (about which more below) so I

Q: Were you offered a tour of the campus, and/or were you introduced to
any of the "big name" executives of Microsoft?

A: No campus tour, no big names. Though I suppose they might have been
watching the video feed....

Q: What was the venue like, and how many people showed up for the event?

A: It was a small auditorium. It looked to me like about 200 people showed
up; it was standing room only, with people stacked against the walls and
sitting in the aisles.

Q: What were the general themes of your speech/presentation? How were they

A: All the usual ones for anyone who has heard my talks. Better
reliability through peer review, how Linux beat Brook's Law, open-source
project ownership customs and the reputation incentive, the eight
open-source business models, scaling and complexity effects.

Q: A confidential informant tells me the event was broadcast to all
20,000-plus Redmond employees of Microsoft over their internal network.
This same informant also says a fair percentage of those in actual
attendance became somewhat belligerent towards you and your Open Source
message. Is this true? If so, would you mind elaborating on which parts of
your presentation they took issue with? For example, were they most
perturbed at the insinuation that Open Source products like Linux are
better in the long run than proprietary systems like MS Windows 2000?

A: Yes, there were a few belligerent types. Typical was one guy who
observed that Oracle has a partial open-source strategy, then triumphantly
announced that Microsoft's earnings per employee are several times
Oracle's, as though this were a conclusive argument on the technical

It was kind of amusing, really, fielding brickbats from
testosterone-pumped twentysomethings for whom money and Microsoft's
survival are so central that they have trouble grokking that anyone can
truly think outside that box. On some subjects, their brains just shut
down -- the style reminded me a lot of the anonymous cowards on Slashdot.

One of the Microsoft people, who knew the faces in the audience, observed
to me afterwards that the people from the NT 2000 development group were
particularly defensive. So, yes, I think my insinuations were perturbing.

Q: Did you notice an overall "mood" or general level of receptivity held
by attendees towards what you had to say?

A: More positive than I had expected. The flamers were a minority, and
they occasionally got stepped on by other audience members.

Q: Anything else interesting to report from your Microsoft visit?

A: Yes. One of its co-authors gave me an autographed copy of "The
Unix-Hater's Handbook" :-) But that doesn't quite mean what you think it
does -- I had been one of the manuscript reviewers.

Q: Of course, many may gather that perhaps the most fun and exciting
aspect of your visit was your dinner with science/speculative fiction
authors Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson. Was that as fun as it sounds to the
rest of us?

A: Sure was. Those dinner plans were what seduced me into going to
Redmond, and I wasn't disappointed. George Dyson (author of "Darwin Among
the Machines", and Esther Dyson's brother) was there too. We spoke of many
things; science fiction and AI and Turing-computability and cryptography.
Oh, and Neal solicited my advice on the proper firearm for dealing with
cougars while hiking with his kids.

Belligerent Win2k developers. An outspoken advocate of Open Source. Put
them together in a room, and what do you get? Rumor has it there were
fireworks. Who knows what galactic alignments were knocked off kilter --
it was the Solstice, after all. We'll never know exactly what happened
over there, at least until a sympathetic mole over in Redmond e-mails us a
RealVideo/MPEG copy of ESR's speech. Illiad's User Friendly offers us some
food for thought.

Thanks very much to Eric S. Raymond for sharing his Microsoft experience
with the Linux/Open Source community.


Matthew Dockrey offers his eyewitness account of ESR's Microsoft speech.

Monday morning, a friend of mine at Microsoft mentioned he got a mailing
about the ESR presentation and thought he would swing by. Being an
opportunist, I convinced him to sneak me in. Luckily, they weren't
checking badges at any point. Considering how much they value trade
secrets, their security is really quite lax.

The presentation was in a conference room in Building 31 (Research). It
was far too small for the turnout, although my friend reminded me that
this was supposed to be for just the research group. Getting there 20
minutes late after missing the bus, we were left trying to catch a peek
through the crowd. There was a live video feed as well, and we ended up
watching the first half from 10 meters down the hall on someone's

The audience was a very odd mix. Most of the people seemed very serious
and were even taking notes. I did notice someone with a KMFMS t-shirt,
though. Some were very obviously hostile towards the Open Source approach,
but not all. (Not everyone who works at Microsoft actually uses their
products at home, remember.) On the way to the presentation, I saw an
office with Linux Journals and O'Reilly Linux manuals laying about, so not
everyone there is ignoring us.

Overall, it was a good presentation. I was generally impressed with ESR's
skills as an orator. He spent most of the time giving a sociological
explanation for why OSS works, or exists at all. Nothing all that
revolutionary (to us): Open Source is a variant of the "gift-culture" that
often forms when groups of people are not greatly bounded by material
limitations (such as coastal Pacific Native Americans and really rich
people) and therefore take to giving away wealth as demonstration of their
worth. He also detailed the culture of Open Source projects, the general
patterns and taboos (a project is owned by someone; you don't fork the
project unless you have very good reasons, etc.) and compared this to
territoriality, especially the way we view land ownership. You can
homestead land (start a project), buy land (have the previous project
owner give it to you) or squat on unused land (take over a long-idle

I felt the presentation lost a bit of its focus when he moved from the
abstract sociological viewpoint to actual justification for Open Source in
a business model. I think this was largely because he based some of his
arguments on sweeping claims about OSS being generally better than
proprietary, and the audience challenged this. His point would probably
have been better made without being quite so confrontational here.

He did make a very good point that 95% of software development is for
internal use only, although there was an amusing moment when his survey of
this particular audience did not reflect this. He also touched on the fact
that most revenue from software is based in support, not the original
sale. He mentioned what happened with Zope, but failed to pursue it. Of
all the business arguments for OSS (and I admit I lean towards RMS's
moralism over ESR's practicality), this seems to be the most relevant.

Overall, it was a very good presentation, and the audience seemed
generally receptive to his ideas. There were some good-natured laughs on
both sides, such as ESR admitting that most of the gift cultures had been
destroyed by disease, or ESR stating a desire to live in a world "where
software doesn't suck" as a valid reason for working on an OSS project. I
found it particularly amusing when, halfway through the presentation,
someone started handing out freshly printed copies of Sunday's User
Friendly comic.