There’s a sense of dissonance in the office of Miguel de Icaza. On one hand, here is the celebrated hacker – as in programming whiz, not virtual trespasser – wearing a T-shirt, looking boyish and rail-thin, and resembling an impoverished graduate student who has been living on coffee. But here also is the vice president of product technology for staid software giant Novell, entirely at ease as he takes command of a plush corporate conference room in Cambridge, MA, with a view of the Charles River and the Boston skyline. It’s a dissonance, however, that de Icaza is quick to wave away. “There are a lot of motivations in the open-source community, like the freedom to choose software platforms and the chance to innovate,” he says, referring to the global community of programmers who write software that others are free to download and modify. “Now one of my motivations is that I’m being paid to do this, and I have to deliver products.”
Both determinedly idealistic and stubbornly pragmatic, de Icaza is in many ways the new face of the open-source software movement. A programming firebrand, de Icaza has rocketed in stature in just a few years from an unknown student at a Mexico City university to one of the leaders of the increasingly successful challenge to Microsoft’s hegemonic grip on computing. And though he remains deeply connected with the community of idealistic programmers who make open source possible, his meteoric rise is fueled in large part by a keen marketing sense. De Icaza recognized early on that to be truly popular with everyday users, the Linux operating system – the freely available operating system that serves as open source’s alternative to Windows – needed the same icon-based bells and whistles familiar from the Windows desktop and access to applications of the same variety and quality as those that run on Windows machines. Open source might offer cheaper and better software, but de Icaza instinctively recognized that it would only change the world if people actually used it.
Indeed, nothing better illustrates the surprising evolution of open source than de Icaza’s trajectory over the last eight years. Starting as an unpaid programmer who contributed minor software programs that supplemented Linux, de Icaza cofounded a startup company called Ximian in 1999 to bring Linux-based desktop tools to market. The company quickly became a major player in the open-source movement, and last year Novell, a financially troubled software vendor best known for its corporate networking products, bought the startup.
Novell hopes to use open source to stop the hemorrhaging of its customer base. Novell’s once vaunted Windows-oriented corporate networking software had been waging an increasingly vain battle against Microsoft’s own products. “We were losing 10 to 12 percent of our base every year,” says Hal Bennett, Novell vice president for business development. “We needed a bright new place to go.” Novell hitched itself to the one approach making headway against Microsoft: open-source software. “Open source is starting to look like the future to a lot of people, and Novell desperately needed a future,” says Rob Enderle of the market research firm Enderle Group in San Jose, CA. “Open source and Linux gives Novell a road map that appears credible.”
What’s most significant about de Icaza’s move to the corporate world is that it’s not unique. “In some ways Miguel has been a totem for those of us in the open-source community,” says Michael Shaver, an open-source project leader who recently joined Oracle Software. “He’s gone from bits of hacking to dealing at a high level with both corporate and community interests. And that’s similar to the direction the entire open-source movement has followed.”