Bruce Perens, the guy who wrote the Open Source definition way back in 1997, has been in the news a lot lately. Some of the media attention has been on his parting of the ways with Hewlett-Packard (Perens calls his departure more of a amicable decision -- The New York Times' description of it as a firing was a bit overblown, Perens says).
But Perens has also been getting coverage for his Sincere Choice initiative, a political platform responding to the Microsoft-backed Initiative for Software Choice, with "choice" meaning customers should be able to choose either proprietary software or ... proprietary software. It's kind of like the old joke about music choices in the rural United States: "We like both kinds of music out here, country and western."
Perens kicked off Sincere Choice a month ago, with a column at The Register deconstructing the Microsoft group. "The Free Software community has been criticized for being good at opposing programs like Software Choice, but not as good at producing its own platforms to promote. Thus, I've tried to put together a Sincere Choice platform - it replaces the cynical Software Choice with a more positive set of principles that really would assure the software user of a broad choice between interoperable products, both Open Source and proprietary."
Among the principles of Sincere Choice: Open standards, competition by merit, and a range of copyright policies.
After the media attention earlier this week, we asked Perens for an interview. Saying his departure from HP was old news, he preferred to talk about Sincere Choice.
NewsForge: Why did you launch Sincere Choice?
Perens: I started it because I heard about this Microsoft-instigated Software Choice a few months before that. They were keeping a very low profile, trying to get other companies to join. I just thought, "Well, somebody should point out that this is made in the tradition of soft money political campaigns." They don't really ever mention the topic; they just sort of make a lot of mother- and apple-pie-like statements around the topic. But the real meat is that they're for patents in industry standards. They feel that Open Source isn't necessary for acceptance of standards.
In the guise of choice, here is a scheme to lock us out of interoperating with other programs using industry standards. In the larger guise, to lock us out of use in government.
Obviously, someone has to stand up to this, and it seems I got cast in the role.
NewsForge: What's been the reaction so far?
Perens: It's been very well received. It's gotten a lot of very, very flattering treatment from the press. I thought the Chronicle article was the very most flattering.
I think that doing Sincere Choice also is one of the reasons why, when I left HP, I got a half-page article in The New York Times business section.
I've been contacted by national governments all the way to the Middle East about talking at conferences and helping them in getting Open Source in government. I find that a lot of governments are really extremely receptive and almost seem to have short-tracked it. Perhaps that's because they might perceive Microsoft as a foreign company and they may be a little worried about, "Here's all this software in our government that we don't control and that has historically had booby traps, but we are not easily able to find because we don't have the source code."
The other thing is a lot of these countries would like to have their own software economies, and they see Open Source as a way of leveraging their own software economy. The main thing they want to do with software is not sell software -- they want to do business. Open Source software for them is perfectly adequate for doing business, and it's something they can maintain in their country.
NewsForge: How many countries have contacted you?
Perens: I've gotten contacts from people in eight or nine different countries already. For example, in Denmark, I'm opening up an ecommerce conference, and their minister of information introduces me. I'm keynoting a European Common Market ecommerce conference, and again, get introduced by some government muckety muck.
They're in government ... and also from industry as well. A call from India was from industry. I actually got one from Kuwait that was from industry in cooperation with a government conference.
Of course, there's all this stuff in Venezuela and Brazil going on. Peru has been the hotbed of publicity, and Venezuela just did this all on a stealth basis.
I don't really want to take anything away from Mike Tiemann's efforts with the Digital Software Security Act. The DSSA is probably one of the most radical means of achieving my goal because it would mandate Open Source. What I'm really seeking is a level playing field, and that's been very well received because it's perceived as more balanced.
NewsForge: Is there a connection between you launching Sincere Choice and leaving HP?
Perens: No, no connection.
NewsForge: What's been the reaction from private citizens? (Currently, two organizations are listed as members -- Perens LLC and Lindows.com).
Perens: Certainly a lot of independent people have signed on. I'm not currently listing the members on the site, but I have about 1,000 sign-ins. A lot of the sign-ins are for companies.
NewsForge: Have you gotten any reaction from the Free Software crowd about the Web site saying Open Source and proprietary can work together? ("We support a broad range of copyright policies, from Public Domain through Open Source and Free Software to Proprietary. We assert that Open Source and Proprietary models can be used together effectively.")
Perens: Actually, I have to change the language a little. Where it says, "our members support a range of software choices," I think I have I have to change that to, "our members represent a range of software choices." Which means that not all of them support all the choices. Then a lot of people will sign on who would not otherwise sign on.
I got a couple of little language quibbles that were easy to address.
NewsForge: Are there dues?
Perens: There are no dues yet. I think eventually I might ask for contributions, but I haven't gotten to that point. I'm paying for it out of my pocket right now; all that's been is Web connectivity on top of my two DSLs here, but eventually those DSLs should start to get paid for.
NewsForge: Is the goal to do some lobbying? What's the game plan?
Perens: Sincere Choice is a political platform, not an organization. My personal goal is to continue to lobby. We have this group that's sort of planning to lobby that we've been hearing about for a long time. I just go to D.C. and knock on people's doors, and it works pretty well. So I've been lobbying for about a year now. I get to D.C. almost every month.
NewsForge: So the first step is just getting people signed up and getting backing to your lobbying?
Perens: Backing and also mindshare. Mindshare is more important than a list of names, because we know petitions don't really go anywhere. We've just got tremendous mindshare -- I've very pleased by it.
NewsForge: You mentioned the other group that's planning to lobby. Have you talked to the American Open Technology Consortium/GeekPAC people?
Perens: Once in awhile, I talk to them just to check, "It's real, and it's going to happen, right?" That's what I hear. Doc Searls and I have been trying to get together for a phone call.
NewsForge: So no objections to working with them, if it happens?
Perens: No objections at all. In fact, I sometimes update those guys on what I'm doing.
NewsForge: What are you working on right now beyond Sincere Choice?
Perens: Making a living. I really recommend, if you're going to change jobs, a half page ad in The New York Times business section with a big picture. I did get a number of good offers out of it and consider myself extremely lucky because there are a lot of people out of work who don't just get offers in their mailbox unsolicited.
I'm talking with about a half dozen companies right now. One of the questions is, how many consulting clients do you need regularly to stay afloat? I'm talking to everyone who calls, because I have no idea how many I need right now. The good news is that a lot of people do see viable roles for me.
NewsForge: So you're thinking mostly about consulting, not a full-time employee gig?
Perens: I'm not thinking about being someone else's employee, although there are companies I could go to work for that are sympathetic to my goals. I do travel a whole lot for speaking, etc., and I think that because of the political activism and the evangelism, which takes up a quarter of my time, that it would be better if I was my own boss. But if someone gave me a really, really nice offer, I certainly would consider it.
It looks like I will be soliciting for support of my non-profit activities. I go all around the world talking about Free Software, and some people are willing to pay an honorarium, but not too many. Thus, I will be asking for support, corporate and otherwise.
The whole point here is I want to continue to do all the stuff I've been doing -- all this evangelizing for freedom and Free Software. And the business I'm setting up is to support my family and support that. I don't want to sound too mercenary, but we work to pay for other things.