I was cleaning out some old — really old — papers recently. Instructions, era 1994, about how to use vi and emacs, and how to dial in to the campus computer systems… Ack — thank goodness we’ll never have to go back to those days (dial up, that is — vi and emacs are still welcome).

That got me thinking about what a huge impact Open Source software (OSS) has had on my life — wow! Here’s a shout out to all the good folks who work on OSS :)

I first really started using Open Source software while studying physics at the College of William & Mary in the early ’90s.

Before then? Yeah, sure, I used the occasional GNU application on the resident Solaris and HP/UX machines at school. But at that point it didn’t feel like I had a particularly noteworthy relationship with OSS ;-)

Over several years, starting about 1994, that changed. We made heavy use of Perl at Jefferson lab (where I collected my thesis data), and just about everyone (me included) used LaTeX to author their dissertation.1 Before leaving I wrote some modest software to store experimental data in a MySQL DB and access it using Perl (using a UI toolkit, though I don’t remember which one).

My first exposure to Linux was when a more senior grad student explained why he needed more than 30 3.5 inch diskettes. Huh?! “It’s this new O/S, Linux. Kinda like Minix, in that you can install it on a regular PC.” Cool! “And it’s Open…” Hmm, what’s that mean? A short time later Red Hat came out with their first CDs, and I started using Linux regularly.

Years later (early 2000) I showed up on AOL’s doorstep. While I really enjoyed academic research, I quit a post-doctoral position partway through for a few personal and professional reasons (which we can chat about later). By that time I was completely on the OSS bandwagon. One of my personal goals was to work for a company that could help level the marketplace dominated by the behemoth from Redmond and other proprietary software vendors (yeah, I get the irony of working for AOL with that attitude, but that’s a more tangled issue for another time).

I wanted to get AOL to move their experimental AOLTV service from a proprietary platform to an embedded version of Linux. I wanted AOL to start using Linux and StarOffice internally. I developed grandiose plans to distribute StarOffice (later OpenOffice.org) on the infamous AOL CDs in order to disrupt Microsoft Office.

Here is an understatement to note: Sometimes it is more difficult than you think to get a large organization to make dramatic changes. Yeah, we live and learn, don’t we?2

Nowadays I use more Open Source software than ever, and collectively it represents an amazing amount of work. At the moment I am using Linux (Ubuntu) / GNU tools, Gnome, KDE, Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, WordPress, Gallery, Joomla, MySQL, Ruby on Rails, KDevelop, Gimp, XPlanner, Digikam, TiddlyWiki, Rythmbox. There are additional OS apps that I use on a sometimes basis or used regularly in the past, the most notable of which are: Perl, Postgres, Latex (and then Lyx), StarOffice, Mozilla, and Gaim (now Pidgin). Holy cow!

So I will close by saying that for the last decade and a half, I’ve been mostly leeching off of Linux and Open Source applications… I’m really sorry about that :-/ The one exception — and I hope it is decent enough to make a karmic dent — is that personally and professionally I have been an outspoken advocate for OSS the whole time.

1Word 6 had arrived recently, and a few students tried using it to write their dissertation. Their recommendation was to stay away… Word had several serious bugs specific to long documents and the particulars of scientific treatises that Microsoft wasn’t very responsive in dealing with.
2In fact, several years after I arrived, AOL became more aligned with Microsoft. I don’t know details, but we apparently signed some sort of deal to work more closely together. By that time it didn’t hurt so much, if only because I had a better understanding of the strategic game that AOL had to play in order to survive in the marketplace.