Meet the Fellows – Simon Phipps

12 January 2016

Author: administrator

Maël Brunet: Simon, thanks for accepting our invitation. Can you talk a little bit about yourself to briefly present who you are and the latest projects that you’ve been working on?

Simon Phipps: My name is Simon Phipps. I’ve worked in the computer industry for about 35 years. I’ve worked most recently for a company called Wipro Technologies, which I’ve just left. Prior to that I helped start a company called ForgeRock which does open source identity management. Before that I was at Sun Microsystems where I was the chief open source officer and participated in open sourcing the Java platform, Solaris Unix and the rest of the portfolio there. Prior to that I was at IBM where I was one of the managers that started IBM’s Java business in 1995. Prior to that I was at IBM working on video conferencing and video conferencing standards. Prior to that I was at a company called Unisys. And prior to that is far too long ago to even think about remembering!

For the last eight years I’ve been associated with the Open Source Initiative (OSI), and up until last April I was the president of the OSI, and I’m just about to be term limited on the board there. I’m also involved with the LibreOffice open source project, where I’ve just been elected in the board over the week-end. I’m also involved with a civil rights organisation called the Open Rights Group in the UK where I’m on the board of directors, and I have my own consulting company called Meshed Insights Limited, that provides consulting services on digital rights, open source and the management issues around both of those things to companies, non-profits and governments.

MB: That’s quite a long list!

SP: The project that I’m just getting started on now is about the needs of collaborative communities and their need for a non-profit organisation to act as a host. I note that open source projects see the need to start open source foundations. The reason they start a foundation is to serve mainly as an asset lock, that is to give all participants in the community the confidence that the assets of the community will only be used to the benefit of the community. For historical reasons, organisations have achieved that asset lock by creating charities of one kind or another – and I’m not convinced that’s the right way of going about it. I think there are better ways of doing an asset lock that enables a community, so I’ve been doing research on that, and I hope in 2016 to do some more work on creating an effective asset lock mechanism and creating an effective way for open source communities to gain the benefits they need – an asset lock, some way of managing their finances, a way of getting mentoring and legal advise – all of those things, without the need to launch a new legal entity of their own. So that’s my current project.

MB: Can you give a teaser on the outcome of that research – if it’s not through a legal entity, how would it be achieved?

SP: Well, a number of countries do have a legal entity that would be more appropriate. In the US that would be called a public benefit corporation. In the UK it’s called a Community Interest Company, and there are equivalent structures in a number of countries.  I think that probably a community interest company in the UK is the best mechanism for hosting open source communities, as well as other kinds of collaborative communities that are gathering around tasks – so it could be that for example a standards organisation should be a community interest company, maybe an open data collaboration should be as well…

MB: And so what would be the advantages of such a structure vs a foundation or a trade association? Is it the fact that it’s less formalised, less heavy on the admin? What’s the key difference here?

SP: Each of those organisations has strengths and weaknesses. A charity tends to be focused on creating a general public benefit, and charities have to be careful not to create a benefit that serves only a particular individual or a particular group of individuals. So for example if you have a group of companies that are collaborating to create some kind of open source project within a charity like this, it can be very difficult in some jurisdictions to pay money to people who are working on a project in order to get a task done. It can be very difficult to pay non-nationals who are participating in an organisation. There are other issues as well around public benefit charities that mean that it can be quite stifling for an organisation which is actually a collaboration of commercial entities to be put inside that container, it can stand in the way of some of the things they do.  And then at the opposite end of the curve there’s the trade association, which exists to act in the interest of its members. If you’re not actually a formal member of the trade association there’s always a concern at the back of the mind that the organisation is not acting in your interest. You see some open source communities that are quite well known that have fallen into this category of being trade associations that are not completely trusted by some members of the community.

People from around the world are collaborating based on their interests and needs, rather than on the basis of their geographical location

So a community interest company (CIC) defines a community in whose interest it’s going to act, and because it’s not typically able to receive tax-deductible donations, the government is much less worried about pinning down exactly it’s going to work with. And it turns out that seeking out tax-deductible donations isn’t actually very helpful for an open source community, unless it’s a community that is mostly located in a single jurisdiction, because you can’t typically make a tax-deductible donation to an entity in a foreign country. On the other hand, a CIC is also locked to the service of a defined community, so avoids the suspicion of special interest favouritism connected with a trade association. It looks to me like this community interest structure, public benefit corporation – whatever you want to call it – could well prove more effective for the sort of communities that we’re seeing emerging out of the meshed society, where people from around the world are collaborating based on their interests and needs, rather than on the basis of their geographical location. I’ve been researching this some more and another OFA Fellow, Andrew Katz, has been helping me with this, and we hope that we’ll be able to come up with an interesting solution for the European open source communities at least, hopefully also for the global open source communities, that uses this community interest structure in place of a charity or trade association, to act as a reliable, safe and trustworthy container for the community collaboration.

MB: Are you going to publish this research? Is it going to be available freely somewhere?

SP: I believe we will. I did speak at a legal conference last year – a conference that is actually under Chatham House Rules – where I presented some initial findings. Not being an academically-minded person unlike most of the other OFA Fellows, I tend to publish my work in the form of a slide deck rather than a paper, but I’m pretty sure that between us, Andrew and I will be putting up some information about this next year, assuming it all works out well.

MB: Interesting. We’d definitely be interested to hear more about this once you’ve finished your research. So we’ve talked a bit about the way that open source projects are structured and can be effectively maintained. Let’s jump to another topic: with your background, you’re probably one of the best placed person in the industry to assess the rise and success of the open source movement. Nowadays it looks a little bit like open source has won and become the norm. So do you still feel we need to raise awareness about the benefits of open source and try to advocate for choosing an open source licence versus a proprietary one? Is that still a relevant discussion?

SP: It absolutely is relevant, and I’ll give you two reasons why. The first is that just within OpenForum Europe, which is a consortium of different interests, including some very large corporations, you discover in the discussions that we have that talking about open source is a very sensitive topic. If you express a preference for open source in any way you tend to get shut down by one of the corporate participants in the discussion, because they’re not very comfortable with the discussion around software freedom. They would much rather talk about open standards or open data, which are both defined in a much more general way so they can find ways to leverage the brand without actually having to make the sacrifices. So I think it remains very important to speak about open source.

The essence of open source is a collaborative technology, which is what really offers a promise for the 21st century, still needs talking about

The second reason I think it’s very important is that we still routinely see companies who are claiming that what they’re doing is open source, while not actually collaborating with anybody. Just in the last week we’ve seen Apple claim to be a pioneer in open source with its hardware and yet when you look at what they’re doing, they really don’t collaborate with people –they typically throw software over the wall. So I think the essence of open source is a collaborative technology, which is what really offers a promise for the 21st century, still needs talking about. And then that arises from the four freedoms – the freedom to use software for any purpose, the freedom to study the source code, the freedom to modify it and improve it, and the freedom to share the original or the modified version with whoever you wish. Those four freedoms are what actually deliver the ability to innovate and collaborate freely, and that innovation and collaboration, empowered by those four freedoms is what’s at the heart of open source for the meshed society. Not getting something for free, not undermining big corporations’ sales, but rather enabling a new way of doing business that is collaborative.  That’s what lies at the heart of how Google and Facebook have become so successful, for example. They haven’t become successful by giving away free software, they’ve become successful because their technology and their source of profit are separate. Thanks to this they’re able to collaborate freely around their software, and that results in a rich ecosystem developing around their software which then powers an adjunct economy. I don’t think we in any way talk incorrectly about open source, even now we’re still focused on getting free stuff and forgetting that we should be trying to get is the liberty to innovate and collaborate.

We’re still focused on getting free stuff and forgetting that we should be trying to get is the liberty to innovate and collaborate

MB: Right. Connected to this issue, do you think that the move towards web-based and cloud applications has also to some extent made the debate on the software licences less relevant? The new model of subscription-based services moves the focus away from software licence, which in some cases may not even be triggered by the use of the service.

SP: It still is profoundly relevant, because the only reason those web-based applications can even exist is because they’re built with open source software. There’s very little work being done to create web-based software using proprietary technologies, and you can’t really have cloud services without open source, because if you try and build them using proprietary technology you then discover that the scaling involves either buying in advance infinite licences, or breaking licence terms. So people use open source software because it’s the only viable way to build cloud technology, unless you happen to be in the position of Microsoft or Oracle and owning all the technology yourself.

MB: Interesting that you mention Microsoft. It looks a little bit like they’re turning around: they ran this campaign last year called “Microsoft loves Linux”, and just recently they made an important deal with Red Hat to offer their products on Microsoft Azure, and I saw you wrote a blog post about this. Do you feel this is still part of their “embrace, extend, extinguish” strategy or do you think it reflects a genuine change of mentality in the company?

SP: What’s going on there is quite interesting. I think that Microsoft faces a certain inevitability when it comes to cloud services. The solutions that people want to run at the moment are all based on open source software. They are mainly deployed on top of Linux. And if Microsoft took their historic position and ignored and rejected technologies that they hadn’t invented themselves, they would be guaranteeing that they cannot play in that market. So they are genuinely embracing open source software for deployment on their systems. They’re not necessarily embracing the open source ideal by making the infrastructure that they’re using open source, and they’re typically requiring proprietary software for things like identity management/single-sign-on, but they have gone a long way with Azure. Now that in no way means that the rest of the company has become friendly to open source. They have a whole division that is devoted to monetising software patents, and that division is still expecting anyone that is embedding Linux on a device to pay a set of royalties to Microsoft. And Microsoft is still getting a huge amount of money from patents that it claims need to be licensed in order to use Android, which is an open source platform. So I see in Microsoft this split personality: I see one division – Azure – driving forward open source, which it has to for its survival. I see it dragging with it the technologies that it needs to persuade developers to deploy on Azure, like .NET. But I see the rest of the company still continuing to act as a bad community member. They are the sort of community member that knocks on your door and demands your goods.

The solutions that people want to run at the moment are all based on open source software

MB: But isn’t that the first step in a process towards acceptance of open source? Historically, looking at other companies that have picked up open source and went on this path from resisting the change to embracing it and contributing back, introducing a division insulated from the rest of the company is often a first step towards further adoption of open source. So are you optimistic about the future of Microsoft?

SP: I actually wrote an article about that a long time ago, giving the seven steps to an embrace of open source by a corporation, and I think that Microsoft is on step 5 of that journey, where one of the divisions embraces open source.

MB: Step 5 out of 7? So they’re pretty far already!

SP: They have come a long way. When Steve Balmer handed the company over to Satya Nadella, that was the turning point for them. That was when they crossed the dividing line in that process from being hostile to being aspiring. The real question now is whether they will go the rest of the way.  I think that’s going to depend on the success of Azure, and the necessity of open source within Azure. I look at Azure and I remain concerned that by embracing proprietary infrastructure and proprietary identity management, even though your software is open source, you’re surrendering some of your flexibility and your ability to innovate and collaborate. So Azure does still concern me, but time will tell whether the move of Azure towards open source will result in the company as a whole will move to embracing open source. For me embracing open source means the company becoming a reliable community member. I think that’s really the key thing that needs to happen to Microsoft. As I said at the moment they’re not a reliable community member. Or if they are, it’s that you can rely on them to make dubious software patents claims on your company if you get successful. You can rely on them to not release the source to critical pieces of infrastructure unless they’re compelled to do so by the European Commission. They need to become the sort of company that is reliable. The sort of company that is wanting to cultivate its reputation in the community, that is wanting to be a peer collaborator across all the technologies that they’re using, having open source as a default strategy rather than as an exceptional strategy. Those are the steps they need to make – and I remain unconvinced that they’re on that path, to be honest with you. I think we’re at the turning point for them where if Azure goes really well and makes a lot of profit for the company then they could become a reliable community player, and if Azure turns out to be a flawed strategy for them and they have to fall back on their cash cow platforms, then they could continue to be an unsafe partner for your business activities.

Embracing open source means the company becoming a reliable community member.

MB: Let’s talk about OSI. What’s next for the organisation? Do you have any interesting projects that you’re working on and you’re excited about?

SP:  When I finally leave the board on March 31st OSI will be an organisation with a fully elected board, elected by its stakeholders.That’s partly by open source organisations such as Mozilla, Debian and Eclipse and others. Those organisations are electing 50% of the board.  Then the individual members of OSI are electing the other 50% of the board. That means the board is now representative and accountable to the stakeholders in open source. Most importantly we have an incubator for new projectsif you want to start a new activity that makes open source better for the world.I If that activity involves writing code we’ll suggest you go to one of the many organisations such as the Software Freedom Conservancy or Software in the Public Interest or Apache or wherever, but if your idea doesn’t involve code, we’ll suggest that you put it in OSI’s incubator. That’s where for example over the last two years we’ve produced a new postgraduate curriculum on open source. So if you’re an educator and you would like a curriculum for teaching your students open source, we have a freely licensed curriculum that has come out of this incubator process and that you can use now.

We’ve been helping a licensing site called tl;dr Legal. We’ve been helping a thing called OpenHatch, which is a project that helps people find ways to get involved in open source. So each of these has come in to our incubator, they’ve sought assistance in some way or another. In the case of OpenHatch for example they wanted an organisation that could fundraise for them, so that they could do their work without themselves having to incorporate as a charity. In the case of the FLOW curriculum the organisation was looking for somebody who could be the subcontractor to a commercial party to create that work.  There were different needs, but our incubator has been vehicle through which we’ve been able to deliver on each of those needs. So leaving OSI I’m very excited about the potential of the incubator to bring new things into open source.  I’m hoping that we’re going to see a number of interesting and important projects going into that incubator and making open source better for everybody.

MB: That all sounds very good. Any last thing you want to mention or want to plug before we close?

We’re moving to a meshed society, where every individual is potentially able to collaborate with every other individual, in different ways across the internet and across the world.

SP: I think I would wrap up the discussion by saying that the thing that motivates me is seeing that we’re at the transition point between the industrial society, the society where all innovation was mediated by small numbers of people who were the owners of control points in the social and economic hierarchy, and we’re moving to a meshed society, where every individual is potentially able to collaborate with every other individual, in different ways across the internet and across the world.  I think the reason why organisations like OFA and OSI are important is  to bring together people to think about the regulatory and practical changes that need to be made to make that meshed society succeed. That’s what motivates me, trying to find out how to make the meshed society succeed in a way that makes the world a better place for everybody rather than just for the winners of the industrial revolution lottery.

MB: Great conclusion. Thanks Simon!