Editor's Note: Open Source Needs Long-Range Plans
Oct 03, 2003, 23:30 (20 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
Re-Imagining Linux Platforms to Meet the Needs of Cloud Service Providers
By Brian Proffitt
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
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
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
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
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
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