A month ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jon "maddog" Hall to interview him for a project on oral history I'm working on. We ended up talking for more than four hours and I have some 67 pages of material from this. As I'm working through the material, I wanted to start by sharing this story with you, in which maddog talks about how secretly sharing Digital source code supported their sale of equipment and services.
It's 1983, I'm working at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). And of course I have access to all the source code. I have access to all the engineers. My entire programming life, I’ve always had access to source code of the programs I'm using. And while I was at DEC, I would run into customers who would say “I'm desperate to get the source code for a driver or the source code for this and I can’t get it”.
He'd have to pay 160,000 dollars for an AT&T source code license, 35,000 dollars for a DEC license, 1,200 dollars for the source code distribution and then they would get a magnetic tape.
And a lot of these were universities. And Unix was free to universities: to research universities! If you were a two year technical college, it wasn’t a research university, it was 160,000 dollars per CPU.
So I would say to him, “You know, I think I saw a piece of source code slip off of my desk. Oh, look, it’s gone now. I wonder where it went.” And they would receive the source code in email messages and I would get back a “thank you”.
But I knew that as a product manager, system administrator or programmer: if they couldn't get the source code, they wouldn't buy our operating system. They wouldn't buy our hardware. They wouldn't buy our services. All for this crappy piece of code that they desperately needed to do their business.
When I caught up with maddog recently, he told me he'd do "exactly the same thing today, and for exactly the same reasons".