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Editor's Note: OSI's Musical Chairs

Mar 04, 2005, 23:30 (4 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

The news that Michael Tiemann is now the interim president of the Open Source Initiative is at once both exciting and troublesome.

It is exciting and positive because Tiemann, who is employed as Red Hat's VP of Open Source Affairs, is a very smart, very business savvy technician who should bring be a good helmsman for OSI.

It is worrisome because this is the second such change of power in a month's time, and with the "interim" tag, there is the appearance of more changes to come. OSI has lately come under a lot of public scrutiny because of the proliferation of open source licenses, and a perceived lack of stability is the last thing this organization needs.

Here's why I am worried about OSI right now: there have been a lot of reports in the media of late, both technical and mainstream, that open source is about to take off in a big way. Just mentioning the name open source, it seems, is starting to get venture capitalists to salivate in the way they used to when you used to mention "Internet" back in the early days of the dot.com bubble.

This is not a bad thing in and of itself. The inflow of positive press and solid capital will ultimately help progress open source to the status most of us feel it deserves.

But you'll notice that thus far in the column, I haven't written the term "Linux." As I have stated in other missives, what's good for open source is not necessarily good for Linux, as competing technologies operating within the open source umbrella have just as much chance of slowing down Linux' growth as proprietary technologies. This is to be expected, of course, but there are a lot of people both inside and outside of the Linux community that don't always get that.

The problem is made more manifest by the converse of my "good for" statement. Because what's bad for open source is almost always bad for Linux. The EU Patent Directive, the constant attacks from Microsoft, and the still-present misconceptions about what open source is are all potentially detrimental to Linux. I do not believe that any of these obstacles are insurmountable, but they do preclude that Linux will on some levels have to hang together with other open source technologies or hang separately. Linux is not the whole of open source, but it will always need to be a player in the open source community.

The coming days of success for open source as a development methodology are pretty much a sure thing in my mind. The popularity of distributed computing, the benefits of many eyes, and the attractiveness of a lower entry barrier to a fiscally successful business model are all contributing to open source's continued success.

What I worry about is how this success will be managed.

During the dot.com bubble, I was working for Jupitermedia as a contractor on their BrowserWatch site, so I saw first hand the rise of many companies who were rushing into the market in hopes a catching a rising technology star. As we all saw, that star fell, hard. I am concerned that a similar set of events might occur with open source if caution is not applied.

To combat that possibility, I think the controls and guidance from organizations like OSI are going to be needed now more than ever. So their consistency and focus is definitely needed.

The three proposed definitions of open source software are clearly a step forward for OSI, as it grapples with the conventional wisdom that there may be too many open source licenses out there now and in the pipeline. I wonder if shifting what were always procedural guidelines, such as proving non-redundancy, to the actual definition is going to make a huge difference, but at least the message will be more prominent.

Is OSI crucial to the continued success of open source? No, because I do not think any one organization (or person) is vital to something this massive. Remember, it is the distributed nature of open source that drives its opponents nuts. There is no head office to embrace, extend, and digest.

And certainly OSI is not directly needed for the continued success of Linux. Linux is doing quite well on its own technical and legal merits. But as good citizens of the broader open source community, a strong OSI with a focused mission will be a benefit to us all in the long term.