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Editor's Note: Open Source Needs Long-Range Plans

Oct 03, 2003, 23:30 (20 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Two companies announced this week they've been financially slapped around--one to the point of bankruptcy, and the other to the point where Wall Street is screeching warnings to all who will listen. That both companies are in trouble is a clear fact--whether one will recover is still up for a debate that I don't really want to get into.

When Trustix AS announced its bankruptcy and Sun Microsystems gave its lower-than-expected revenue earnings statements, this was certainly bad news from a business sense. Curiously, both of these events highlighted--again--one of the greatest strengths of the GNU General Public License.

That strength is simply this: if a company dies, products it has licensed under the GPL do not have to follow them quietly into that good night.

When Trustix announced its fiscal death (for that seems to be what it is, and not a restructuring), the fate of Trustix Secure Linux would have been very undetermined had TSL been a proprietary piece of software. Very likely, the project would have been dead. But since such a hypothetical world does not exist, the GPL has already allowed some developers from Trustix AS to form their own company and a new incarnation of Trustix, known as Tawie Server Linux.

I wish Tawie well, and hope they can continue the work on the old Trustix code. The very existence of the GPL is what allows me to make that statement.

Sun's financial troubles have prompted a lot of people to wonder what will happen to Java, Solaris, and StarOffice/OpenOffice.org. The issues of Java inversely reveal GPL's strength through the proprietary nature of Sun's licensed Java and Solaris. In the unlikely event Sun does go away, what does happen to these applications and platforms for which Sun owns the rights?

If Microsoft were to suddenly go bankrupt (calm down, we're in that hypothetical universe again) next week, the future of Windows development would most assuredly be in danger, until someone stepped up to buy the license for the Windows code away from an ailing Microsoft. With proprietary licenses, money almost always has to change hands to get the rights.

Stepping back into our reality, the chances of Microsoft going under are about as remote as me growing a full head of hair (which, oddly enough, I do have in that alternate universe). But I was just illustrating a point here.

What's even worse, and has happened in this little reality we call home, is when licenses for software are bought by larger, more powerful competitors and the bought software is stripped of its useful parts and merged into the larger company's offerings or--even worse--quietly shelved away for "research" and never seen again.

To me, the idea that licenses can be abused like this just causes a slow burn. But the broad use of these tactics reveals one reason Microsoft and other proprietary companies are reacting so strongly to Linux: they can't buy it and make it go away.

GPL'd software is not a magic pill that will ensure that software will live forever. A license grants freedom, but not neccessarily life. OpenOffice.org, the open-source development bed for Sun's StarOffice, will clearly live on in some fashion.

But the sheer magnitude of OpenOffice.org's codebase means that without some kind of corporate backing, the project's development may slow down significantly as once-sponsored developers shift their work on OpenOffice.org from full-time to part-time status.

This thought is rather unsettling: do the more complex open-source projects have to have some source of funding to be successful? It depends on your definition of success.

If you mean "a darn good, solid piece of software" as a definition, then no, funding is not needed. There is way too much talent out there that can pitch in and build great software on their own time.

If you mean "a darn good, solid piece of software that is competitive with other product offerings, including commercial," then the case could be strongly made that some sort of funding for such projects is vital for them to be successful.

Looking at the most successful applications that are on the tightest development cycles would seem to bear this out. GNOME has funded developers from Red Hat and Ximian/Novell. KDE has similar assistance from SUSE/UnitedLinux. OpenOffice.org has Sun. Developers need to get paid to actively participate on big projects.

Clearly this is not a blanket statement. The success of The GIMP alone smacks this line of reasoning in the head pretty hard. And not all the good developers on the projects I mentioned are getting paid by the projects' patrons. But looking at trends and not absolutes, I believe the majority of successful and popular open-source products do benefit from corporate involvement.

The question is are these benefits so strong that they form a real dependency on such funding?

If Sun stops assisting the development of OpenOffice.org, we will see the answer to this question played out. Eric Raymond's earlier column on the demise of Sun may have been a bit alarmist, but he had a point that I think should be expanded to include all open-source and free software projects.

The GPL ensures that a project can live after a fiscal or development crisis. But a little advanced planning is needed to ensure that a project will live on.

If a project is being funded heavily by one or a few patrons, its members should honestly ask themselves what happens if the patron takes their money elsewhere? A few good backup plans will make sure the project continues no matter what hardships befall it.