Interview: Simon Phipps, a computer scientist and open source advocate

Simon Phipps OSIOne could call Simon Phipps a real eclectic geek, having in mind his background and activism globally: from campaigning for digital liberties, open data, open source software and political transparency, through his columns at InfoWorld to presidenting at the Open Source Initiative.

Simon studied electronic engineering at the University of Southampton, after which he worked for IBM, being involved in introducing the Java programming language, then he was leading Sun’s open source projects for Sun Microsystems – where he also worked on open source licenses. When Sun Microsystems and Oracle merged in 2010, Simon joined ForgeRock startup as Chief Strategy Officer. Now, he heads his own consulting company, Meshed Insights Ltd.

He is the president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) since 2012 –  the non-profit organisation that advocates for open source software and builds bridges between open source communities and maintains the open source licenses. Also, he is a board director at the Open Rights Group in the UK and on the advisory board of Open Source for America.

Simon has been giving talks at many conferences on open source, free software, digital rights, etc. I had a chance to meet Simon couple of years ago in Oxford (UK), at the Transfer Summit conference on open innovation, development and collaboration, and ever since I’ve been following his work online and offline.

Welcome to Australian Science. Would you, please, tell our readers a little bit more about yourself? Where do you come from, both geographically and philosophically?

I’m originally from south London but have lived in Southampton for 35 years. I’ve been programming computers and making electronics since I was a teenager, with other interests in general science. I’ve always been fascinated by networks and the capacity for action at a distance, so my career has embraced many aspects of both.

Back in the days of Sun Microsystems, you were leading Sun’s open source projects, and later got involved in the Open Source Initiative. How did you initially get interested in open source software? 

At one point I ran a company that helped programmers create and distribute software as Shareware. I realised most people who use software could be trusted to support the developers behind it; our business was successful as a result! That opened my eyes to the deeper reality that underlies open source software. If you remove the obstacle of needing permission to contribute, a community will naturally collaborate to create what they need individually and share it with everyone else. So when I arrived at Sun from IBM, I already believed that open source was a crucial part of the new society emerging because of the Internet. At Sun I was privileged to oversee the relicensing of pretty much the whole of Sun’s software portfolio, including Java, identity management, Solaris, and much more. The legacy we created is still important, especially the code that has ended up as LibreOffice and the ongoing releases of Java under the GPL.

Would you explain to our readers what do Open Source Initiative (OSI), beside promoting open-source software, do for the Internet, science, research, and academia?  

OSI was formed in 1998 as the steward of the then-newly-coined “Open Source