J.D. Frazer is not known for Open Source development. He is also
not known for releasing enterprise solutions. J.D. Frazer is not
known for speaking at conferences world-wide about the Open Source
community, or running seminars for businessmen about using Linux in
their businesses. J.D. Frazer is charged with the responsibility of
making the Open Source community laugh at others, or most commonly,
J.D., or as he's more commonly known, 'Illiad,' is the artist
and writer of a daily comic strip called 'User Friendly,' which
chronicles the lives and employees at Columbia Internet, a
fictitious Internet Service Provider in Canada. His site, userfriendly.org, racks up about nine
million page views a month. His fans, called 'UFies,' are voracious
in their reading and their propagation of the comic. His fans range
from ISP technical support personnel to high-tech high rollers from
all four corners of the Earth.
The comic strip deals with all things geeky: from Star Wars to
Quake competitions; from tales of insane technical support work to
the competition between Linux and BSD and MacOS and any number of
other operating systems. The UserFriendly fan base has supported
their comic strip by buying a lot of T-shirts and merchandise and
most recently a book published by O'Reilly and Associates, a
publishing house much better known for their 'nutshell' books and
animal-themed covers. This gives just a tiny inkling of where
UserFriendly's audience lies.
I got to interview J.D. 'Illiad' Frazer in the aftermath of The
Bazaar, the Open Source conference held in New York City December
14-16, 1999. Hopefully, this interview will give you a little
insight into one of the most unassuming and influential characters
in the Open Source world.
So, how old are you?
"Old enough to know better, young enough not to care. You
can say early thirties."
How do you explain the monstrosity that is your work?
"Well, the cartoon strip happens to appeal to the
best-connected demographic on the net, and because they are the
best-connected on the net, they have the resources to propagate
things they love among themselves. Have you ever played the game
Life, where it explodes on its own? Same kind of thing. It's really
a tell-two-people, they tell-two friends thing, and it goes on
Boxers or briefs?
"Depends on the temperature."
I've noticed a steady stream of groupies everytime you're
"I wouldn't call them groupies. Rock stars have groupies,
cartoonists have fans. There's a not-too-subtle difference between
the two. If you can't figure out [the difference], you're beyond my
Are you surprised by the popularity?
"Enormously. I am astonished by something new just about
every day about the audience and the popularity."
O'Reilly isn't usually in the business of publishing comic
books. What do you think the decision to publish a UserFriendly
book was based on?
"The popularity of the comic strip itself, especially in the
Open Source community, which O'Reilly has become a major proponent
How does Linux affect the strip?
"The cartoon strip doesn't deal with technical issues in the
sense that it doesn't tackle anything; The cartoon strips focuses
on the social aspects of the Open Source community, which includes
Linux, BSD, Open Source, BeOS, Windows, etc. So, Linux affects the
comic strip in its evolution and daily impact on the community that
surrounds it. I try to keep the cartoon strip topical."
What operating systems do you use on a daily basis?
"Linux, BeOS and Windows. I use Linux to IRC, get mail,
webbrowsing and writing. I use BeOS for a lot of illustration and
multimedia work. I use Windows for games and for now, some
illustration work. When Adobe ports Photoshop and Illustrator to
Linux, the only reason for me to still use Windows will be
What did you think you would be doing at this point in your
"I figured I'd be working as a creative director or a
project manager for a high-tech company."
In a way, you are.
"Yes, I am. Creative director, anyway."
From books to T-shirts to Christmas tree ornaments, people can't
get enough UserFriendly stuff. What's new on the merchandising
"So far, we've been introducing a new item once a month or
once every couple months. What we plan to do in the year 2000 is
introduce one or two new items a month. This will come about either
with current efforts, or alternatively with a large merchandising
firm. We haven't decided which yet."
What did you think about The Bazaar?
"Well, I'll be honest and say that I only saw small parts of
it, because I was only on the show floor for about three hours. All
those three hours were spent signing books and T-shirts for fans.
So, with the window I had left of my time to examine The Bazaar, I
think the organizers have learned a few lessons. They probably need
stronger marketing, and the timing for the show wasn't the
Where do you see the staff of [fictional ISP] Columbia Internet
in a year?
"Oh, they'll probably all be rich because the Chief will IPO
Columbia Internet, even though the company is still losing money.
Judging from Amazon.com, that's the way it works, doesn't
Time Magazine selected Jeff Bezos from Amazon as Man Of The
Year, you know. If you could pick a person for Man Of The Year, who
would it it be?
"Good question. Let me think about it for about 30 seconds.
Hmm. We're basically talking about Western civilization,
Anyone you want.
"Jar Jar Binks. No, wait. Darth Maul."
Other than the Open Source community, what else inspires your
"Man's inhumanity to man. Just watch a group of tech support
workers, and you'll see what I mean inside of fifteen
What's your personal worst tech support experience?
"Alright. Customer calls me up, explains to me what the
problem is, which basically amounted to them not understanding what
was going on with their machine. Then for the next ten minutes,
they explained to me how they were going to fix it. I couldn't get
in a word edgewise, other than the occasional 'um' and 'er', and
then they hung up."
It's no secret that the CEO of the fictional 'Columbia Internet'
is based on UserFriendly CEO Barry Carlson. Tell me how people you
know get into the strip.
"I go by the axiom that the best humor has a grain of truth
in it. So, developing storylines and jokes for the cartoon strip is
a pretty simple process. All I need to do is pay close attention to
what people are saying and doing everyday. More often than not,
they'll come up with something funny. That's it."
You must be having a bunch of fun.
"I do, when I'm not thinking about work. There's actually an
enormous amount of work going on behind the scenes at UserFriendly,
and these developments will come to light in the new
What do you feel about the title 'cartoonist?'
"It's a title, like any other, and it means absolutely
Who are your biggest influences?
"In order, Berke Breathed, Garry Trudeau, Bill
What's your take on Open Source software? I mean, the characters
in the strip are pretty solidly Pro- Open Source.
"My take is real simple. I like Open Source because it
allows for rapid development, and generally it produces software
with the purist of motivations. Having coders work on something
they love means you're going to have a product that is orders of
magnitude better than one that coders aren't in love
"Where there is light, there must be shadow."
That's pretty cryptic.
"Mm-hmm. If you think about it, it could mean a million
Occasionally, real-life people make it into the strip. Has any
real person you've used in the strip taken offense?
"I haven't had any documents served on me, so no, I don't
Where would you like to be in five years?
The cool thing about conducting interviews is that I get to ask
job-interview questions; here's one for you. If you were a vehicle,
what would you be?
"You mean a land-bound vehicle?
"I'd be an M-1 Abrams tank, because you can run over bad
people and blow stuff up."
What do you like to do in your offtime?
"I write, I game, I read, I go long-distance running. Those
are the big ones."
Do you consider yourself a geek?
"Yes, because I have a deep curiosity about a great many
Do you watch much television?
"No. When I do, I watch Law and Order, wildlife
documentaries, and I spent a lot of time on the history
Tell me about where you live, and how it impacts your work.
"Vancouver, British Columbia. Quite possibly the most
beautiful city in the world. It doesn't impact the content of my
work, but it does impact the way I work, because I have the luxury
of leaving the environs of the city, travelling for about an hour
and I'm into green wilderness, and that's when I need to
Thanks for talking to us, J.D., and we wish you and UserFriendly
all the luck in its coming endeavours!
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