Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Free Software

For the last 15 years, Linux has slowly been on the uptake, building and refining, filling the gap where Microsoft left off. You know, in places like security and reliability. It started with just one man, Linus Torvalds. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say it is now a world class operating system for computers. Linux supports more hardware than any other operating system in the world. Linux runs in all manner of devices from cell phones to supercomputers. And adoption has been growing at double-digit rates for several years now.

The thing I like about Linux is that it is built by enthusiasm and competence. The men and women who contribute to Linux are essentially show-offs. I say this because their programming code is there for all to see. That is one of the requirements for software licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). The 4 basic rights of the license are: 1) you can use the software for any purpose you desire; 2) You are free to copy the software; 3) You are free to modify the software and; 4) You may redistribute the software as long as you include the source code you contributed with the binaries.

Source code is human readable code that programmers write. When the programmer is finished writing, he uses a compiler to process the code, and the result of that process is a binary file that computers can understand. When a programmer writes software, he creates source code with comments, little notes that tell him and others what that part of the software is doing. It can also contain copyright attribution, too. When the source code is compiled, the comments are stripped out leaving a clean binary executable file for the computer. Hence the power of free software: everyone can share, reproduce and improve your work if you share it with others under the GPL.

There are a number of reasons why the GPL is so popular. Evidence of it's popularity can be seen at Sourceforge.net, where more than 60% of the projects hosted there are licensed under the GPL. Programmers like it because the source code can stay public for all to see. Many programmers have had the experience of watching a great idea get shuttered by the corporation they were working for. The GPL keeps their project alive. And it prevents the project from being subsumed by a corporation for it's private use within a proprietary product. But I think the most impressive thing about it is the resume. A programmer can point to the project and the change log of the project and say, see? I'm there. That's called credibility. But wait, there's more.

Remember, people who love Linux are show-offs. It's a badge of honor to find a bug in Linux and report it. Credibility comes when you report a bug, and offer a solution, *and* the solution is accepted for inclusion in the source code. For a programmer, he'll be floating for weeks on that good feeling of making the computer world a slightly better place and knowing that he will get credit for it. That looks mighty good on a resume, too.

For at least the last 10 years, Linux has been competing with Microsoft in one way or another. People wanted an alternative and they got one. But lately, things haven't been so good. A few years ago, The SCO Group initiated a baseless lawsuit against IBM claiming breach of contract for contributing intellectual property to Linux. IBM had a software license with AT&T, the creator of UNIX. That agreement was eventually sold to several other companies, and eventually to SCO. For more than 20 years, things were fine until SCO decided that it couldn't make money at the UNIX game anymore. So they began to sue, and sue big. IBM wouldn't settle. SCO has been dragging out the lawsuit now for 3 years with hardly any evidence to support their claims. The full story can be found at www.groklaw.net.

There have been a couple of big hits lately against Linux distributors. First, there's Oracle. Oracle has decided to use Red Hat's source code to create their own version of Linux. Sure, this is always a danger. But supporting someone else's code is a lot different than taking their code and changing it and redistributing it and supporting *that*. I sense that Oracle may have bitten more than it can chew. Red Hat has been working with and refining their source code for years and they really know their product. Oracle will have to catch up to Red Hat. I think eventually, Red Hat will prevail, but for now life hasn't been easy.

The biggest hit against Linux is the deal between Microsoft and Novell. Microsoft says that it will work with Novell to improve interoperability between Windows and Linux. Yeah, right. Like Microsoft has ever been a big fan of interoperability. When Microsoft was a little company, interoperability was a big deal. But once they established their dominance, they differentiated their products to prevent interoperability. That's called "vendor lock-in".

Take for example, the Word document format. Open Office is a program created by reverse engineering the Word document format. People who work on the Open Office program have spent years looking at every detail of the Word document format so that they can recreate it. And open Word documents with something other than Word.

The other part of the agreement is a patent covenant between Microsoft and SUSE customers - NOT Novell, the owner of SUSE. All this means is that if SUSE Linux infringes on any Microsoft software patents, Microsoft will not sue Novell's customers. What they are trying to do is flout the spirit of the GPL. The GPL requires that when you distribute GPL software, everyone downstream gets all the rights you have. The problem with this deal is that only the people who purchase and receive software directly from Novell are protected. But if you're a Red Hat customer, well, , don't hold your breath.

Most people are confused about Novell's action to enter into this agreement. Novell is a party to a lawsuit with SCO over the copyrights to UNIX, which SCO claims to be the source of Linux. SCO is claiming that Linux is an unauthorized derivative work of UNIX, and that they own the copyrights. Novell has been in the fight against SCO for a long time. And they were arch enemies of Microsoft. So why the deal?

We don't really know enough yet to know why. But we do know that everyone who has ever gotten into bed with Microsoft, came away with a VD (Venomous Deal). There is a trail of corpses and scarred partners that goes back 20 years. Most if not all partners with Microsoft either died in litigation or went away feeling a lot lighter in the wallet and shut out of the market. The Groklaw website has a page devoted to litigation with Microsoft. It's a long, long page.

Red Hat is the top distributor of Linux by any measure. They compete directly against Microsoft and Novell. Hence, the enemy of the enemy is my friend. But they have some interesting things to say about the deal. And they quote and link to some very knowledgeable and influential people who can comment with some authority on it.

The questions that arise concern mostly whether the deal can work within the framework of the GPL. Most are cautious about that. Many see the divide and conquer tactics being employed by Microsoft and call foul. But here, I think that Microsoft has underestimated the size and power of their opponent. We're not talking about a single company. Or just one country. We're talking about people all over the world who want Linux to succeed. And they're determined to do it. And it's all based on an idea. Funny thing. During the revolution here, in America, the king of England noticed the danger of ideas and noticed that people were willing to fight for them.

Microsoft, likes to think of themselves as the Let Us Innovate people. Yet, they want to use patents to shut Linux down. They are so bent on driving down or eliminating competition, that they are willing to win at any cost. They are doing everything they can to influence governments and large corporations to use their products, exclusively. Here's an example, if you're looking for one. They are using Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) to prevent Linux adoption.

So, here's what I don't understand. Microsoft is the world's largest software company. They could do anything they wanted, really. They have the resources to make a superior product. They've had those resources for at least 5 years, very likely for 10 years. Yet, for at least the last 10 years, they've been using FUD to drive their business. They disparage the competition while talking with the customers of the competition. Remember that litigation page? Try reading some of the testimony from those pages. You'll read page after page of how Microsoft sales execs lied about the competition to their customers.


Why didn't they simply *make* a better product? Why do they need software patents to protect their product when they could just make a better product that people would be willing to buy?

The reason why is that money is the rule that Microsoft uses to measure prosperity. When I think of Microsoft sales practices, I think of Karl Rove, you know, Bush's brain. Karl Rove has been accused of using every dirty trick he could think of to get Bush to be president. Hey, it worked. But look at Bush now. Defeated. Laughed at. Lame duck. But that is another article.

The point is that MS lost sight of the goal: make better software. Instead, they used the government and the media to slow down or kill their competition, through contracts, lawsuits, or spin.

This latest deal with Novell is really about Novell and MS trying to establish an unfair advantage over the Linux competition. We already know what MS wants. But try thinking of Linux as a flowing river. When you try to put a river into a bucket, it's no longer flowing. They want to capture all that creativity and put a tax on it for their own benefit. How fair is that?

44% of the SUSE Linux distribution is owned by the Free Software Foundation. They are planning on taking all that software to GPL v.3. And in the new version of the license, they are going to write it so that any benefit from a patent covenant that is intended for just one group will automatically be extended to anyone who receives the software. And if you can't comply, you can't distribute under this license.

I like the way Pamela Jones has been covering this debacle. She is making a very good case for conversion of property in this deal. People seem to think that the GPL does not respect copyrights or property rights. Quite the contrary. The people who wrote the code still hold the copyrights to their own code. They have licensed it under the GPL for distribution. Microsoft seems to have forgotten that minor point. I guess Microsoft is really upset that so many people disregard their licenses, too.

As the majority of the software in Linux distributions moves to GPL v.3, so will the majority of the developers, leaving poor Novell to fend for themselves with software that takes time and effort to maintain, distribute and support.


So there. Those are my latest thoughts on the state of free software. You know, Richard Stallman has been quoted to have said, "To understand free software, think of free as in freedom, not free as in beer."

Scott Dunn
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