Open source feats to be proud of

By Adam Gifford

O'Callahan made significant contributions to the Mozilla project, which developed the Firefox browser. Photo / Supplied
O'Callahan made significant contributions to the Mozilla project, which developed the Firefox browser. Photo / Supplied

When Rob O'Callahan moved home to New Zealand five years ago, there was a feeling of pride in this country's small open source community at his achievements.

Like many of our top computer science students, O'Callahan had gone overseas to further his education.

Between finishing his doctorate and working in places like IBM's Watson research laboratory, he made significant contributions to the Mozilla project, which developed the Firefox browser out of the bloodied ruins of Netscape.

O'Callahan is the first winner of the University of Auckland Clinton Bedogni Prize for Open Systems, given as part of this year's New Zealand Open Source Awards.

O'Callahan got involved in open source while doing a PhD in software development research.

"I had no experience actually doing software development. I was feeling a bit of a fraud, so I got involved.

"I also believed in what Mozilla was doing, that there needed to be competition in the browser market," he said.

Mozilla grew out of the open sourcing of the Netscape code base after that company lost out to Microsoft's market power in what were known as the browser wars of the 1990s.

O'Callahan has played a major hand in developing Mozilla's Gecko layout engine.

"Most open source projects have a bug database, with lists of known bugs ... and there was a bug entry about text justification, where a Netscape developer said 'this is likely to be hard'.

"I said 'How hard can it be?' and a few months later I emerged with something that worked. It was hard, but I enjoyed doing it.

"I started taking over responsibility for bits and pieces, rewrote some nasty code and then became the authority for those areas."

He now works for Mozilla, managing the team that works on how web pages display items.

Mozilla's small Newmarket office also includes developers working on how video and audio works in the browser.

The job came soon after he moved back home.

"I was a contributor for five years and proved myself that way. It then becomes an easy decision to ring you and say 'We'll pay you to work full time on this'."

O'Callahan says it was humbling to win the Bedogni prize.

"It's sort of weird to have an award for an individual contribution to open source because it's such a community effort. I feel incredibly lucky to write software and get paid for it, and even to give it away," he said.

"Also, I think of all those people like me who spend a lot of time doing this as a hobby or on a voluntary basis.

"It means there is probably something else they are not doing. You are taking time away from family, from other people, so I also have to thank all those other people for bearing with us."

Wellington firm SilverStripe, which won the open source project category, also relies on the worldwide community formed around its content management system.

The firm developed the SilverStripe CMS to support the side of the business it gets its revenue from, which is developing websites.

It has since been downloaded more than 300,000 times.

Chief executive Brian Calhoun says it uses the BSD licence, which allows people to modify it for commercial use.

"We open ourselves up to the world, say 'Use it any way you want, you don't have to tell us, you don't have to pay us,' and that has an interesting effect.

"People have responded with feedback, with patches, with feature requests and new development, with showcase sites they have given back to the community," Calhoun said.

"Over time we are getting more developers who aren't SilverStripe employees contributing to the core product."

He estimates about 12 per cent of his firm's time is spent on open source work, such as adding new features or testing patches developed by the community.

Calhoun says open source is a pure meritocracy, which can lead to payment and careers.

"If you are a motivated developer and play with (SilverStripe), you get involved, you talk to our developers on email groups, if you make good suggestions, your ideas will get into the product."

He says winning the prize was humbling, especially since SilverStripe was up against statistical language R (whose instigator, Ross Ihaka from Auckland University, won the Catalyst Lifetime Achievement Award).

"It's testament to the strength of our community, the pride of our community," he said.

The People's Choice award went to Amie McCarron for the websites she built for Alcoholics Anonymous.

McCarron has built her Bluebubble Design business around the Joomla open source content management system to build and maintain her sites.

"Most of my clients are artists and non-profits, so cost is an issue. Using open source means I only need to charge for my time," McCarron said.

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- NZ Herald

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