Phases of the Campaign

The open-source campaign began with the Mountain View meeting, and rapidly collected an informal network of allies over the Internet (including key people at Netscape and O'Reilly Associates). Where I write `we' below I'm referring to that network.

From 3 February to around the time of the actual Netscape release on 31 March, our primary concern was convincing the hacker community that the `open source' label and the arguments that went with it represented our best shot at persuading the mainstream. As it turned out, the change was rather easier than we expected. We discovered a lot of pent-up demand for a message less doctrinaire than the Free Software Foundation's.

Tim O'Reilly invited twenty-odd leaders of major free software projects to what came to be called the Free Software Summit on 7 March. When these leaders voted to adopt the term `open source', they formally ratified a trend that was already clear at the grass roots among developers. By six weeks after the Mountain View meeting, a healthy majority of the community was speaking our language.

The publicity following the Free Software Summit introduced the mainstream press to the term, and also gave notice that Netscape was not alone in adopting the open-source concept. We'd given a name to a phenomenon whose impact was already larger than anyone outside the Internet community had yet realized. Far from being fringe challengers, open source programs were already market leaders in providing key elements of the Internet infrastructure. Apache was the leading web server, with more than 50% market share (now grown to more than 60%.) Perl was the dominant programming language for the new breed of web-based applications. Sendmail routes more than 80% of all Internet email messages. And even the ubiquitous domain name system (which lets us use names like rather than obscure numeric IP addresses) depends almost entirely on an open-source program called BIND. As Tim O'Reilly said during the press conference following the summit, pointing to the assembled programmers and project leaders: ``These people have created products with dominant market share using only the power of their ideas and the networked community of their co-developers.'' What more might be possible if large companies also adopted the open source methodology?

That was a good start to our `air war', our attempt to change perceptions through the press. But we still needed to maintain momentum on the ground. In April, after the Summit and the actual Netscape release, our main concern shifted to recruiting as many open-source early adopters as possible. The goal was to make Netscape's move look less singular—and to buy us insurance in case Netscape executed poorly and failed its goals.

This was the most worrying time. On the surface, everything seemed to be coming up roses; Linux was moving technically from strength to strength, the wider open-source phenomenon was enjoying a spectacular explosion in trade press coverage, and we were even beginning to get positive coverage in the mainstream press. Nevertheless, I was uneasily aware that our success was still fragile. After an initial flurry of contributions, community participation in Mozilla was badly slowed down by its requirement for the proprietary Motif toolkit. None of the big independent software vendors had yet committed to Linux ports. Netscape was still looking lonely, and its browser still losing market share to Internet Explorer. Any serious reverse could lead to a nasty backlash in the press and public opinion.

Our first serious post-Netscape breakthrough came on 7 May when Corel Computer announced its Linux-based Netwinder network computer. But that wasn't enough in itself; to sustain the momentum, we needed commitments not from hungry second-stringers but from industry leaders. Thus, it was the mid-July announcements by Oracle and Informix that really closed out this vulnerable phase.

The database outfits joined the Linux party three months earlier than I expected, but none too soon. We had been wondering how long the positive buzz could last without major ISV support and feeling increasingly nervous about where we'd actually find that. After Oracle and Informix announced Linux ports other ISVs began announcing Linux support almost as a matter of routine, and even a failure of Mozilla became survivable.

Mid-July through the beginning of November was a consolidation phase. It was during this time that we started to see fairly steady coverage from the financial media I had originally targeted, led off by articles in The Economist and a cover story in Forbes. Various hardware and software vendors sent out feelers to the open-source community and began to work out strategies for getting advantage from the new model. And internally, the biggest closed-source vendor of them all was beginning to get seriously worried.

Just how worried became apparent when the now-infamous Halloween Documents leaked out of Microsoft. These internal strategy documents recognized the power of the open source model, and outlined Microsoft's analysis of how to combat it by corrupting the open protocols on which open source depends and choking off customer choice.

The Halloween Documents were dynamite. They were a ringing testimonial to the strengths of open-source development from the company with the most to lose from Linux's success. And they confirmed a lot of peoples' darkest suspicions about the tactics Microsoft would consider in order to stop it.

The Halloween Documents attracted massive press coverage in the first few weeks of November. They created a new surge of interest in the open-source phenomenon, serendipitously confirming all the points we had been making for months. And they led directly to a request for me to confer with a select group of Merrill Lynch's major investors on the state of the software industry and the prospects for open source. Wall Street, finally, came to us.

The following six months were a study in increasingly surreal contrasts. On the one hand, I was getting invited to give talks on open source to Fortune 100 corporate strategists and technology investors; for the first time in my life, I got to fly first class and saw the inside of a stretch limousine. On the other hand, I was doing guerrilla street theater with grass-roots hackers—as in the riotously funny Windows Refund Day demonstration of 15 March 1999, when a band of Bay-area Linux users actually marched on the Microsoft offices in the glare of full media coverage, demanding refunds under the terms of the Microsoft End User License for the unused Windows software that had been bundled with their machines.

I knew I was going to be in town that weekend to speak at a conference hosted by the Reason Foundation, so I volunteered to be a marshal for the event. Back in December I'd been featured in a Star Wars parody plot in the Internet comic strip "User Friendly". So I joked with the organizers about wearing an Obi-Wan Kenobi costume at the demonstration.

To my surprise, when I arrived I found the organizers had actually made a passable Jedi costume—and that's how I found myself leading a parade that featured cheeky placards and an American flag and a rather large plastic penguin, booming out "May the Source be with you!" to delighted reporters. To my further surprise, I was drafted to make our statement to the press.

I suppose none of us should have really been astonished when the video made CNBC. The demonstration was a tremendous success. Microsoft's PR position, still trying to recover from the exposure of the Halloween Documents, took another body blow. And within weeks, major PC and laptop manufacturers began announcing that they would ship machines with no Windows installed and no ``Microsoft tax'' in the price. Our bit of guerilla theater, it appeared, had struck home.