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Community Column: Fishy Business and Salmon.

May 08, 2001, 22:30 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Everitt)

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By John Everitt

As I re-read Craig Mundie's speech and came to the bullet pointed principles of shared source philosophy, several thoughts were percolating to the fore of my consciousness. Not least a cow like creature moo-ing GCC.

The whole shared source philosophy is like a one way plumbing valve. Say I come up with a great new feature, such as a tap dancing pirate paper-clip that stabs old temporaray files with its cutlass and tosses the trash in to the recycle bin . The paper-clip would flow one way. Would you like my tap-dancing pirate paper-clip and could you improve it? You could not lobby Microsoft for my work - you would not of heard about the tap dancing pirate paper clip. If Microsoft did like the tap dancing pirate paper-clip would it be MY tap dancing pirate paper-clip?

Maybe if the intellectual property belongs to me and it is bundled as part of the Windows next-gen supermegahyperglobalNET I still give it away. Maybe I want to port the tap dancing pirate paper-clip to MacOS, Gnome or KDE. Can I still do that? It isn't entirely clear from the speech.

So, for now I drop the tap dancing pirate paper-clip, which was just silly and decide to build a five inch orange zombie that repeatedly says "Where Do You Want To Go Today" in a variety of voices, such as Homer Simpson's, Barry White's and Bill Gates'. It would have variable pitch voice control and stomp about the Windows task bar occasionally leering "Brains, must eat brains". I may run Windows NT 4. The first thing I need is a compiler and the shell source code because I want the zombie to be integrated, maybe tied, to the task bar.

I drive to my local Provantage. I'm inherently cheap so I buy the Standard Version of Microsoft Visual C++ 6 ($85). I believe certain features of the shell are written in Microsoft Visual Basic, so I also pick up the Learning Edition ($87). The strange sub-conscious cow like creature moos GCC again.

I write to Microsoft saying that I have a great idea and can I have your access to their source code? Microsoft say no. My employer is not part of the Enterprise Source Licensing Program. I write back and ask for a research license. Apparently this is only possible if I'm a member of one of 100 Academic institutions that have access to the code. A guy with an idea cannot profit from it. Isn't this anti the American way?

Well, Microsoft have lost the zombie and I have lost $172. However, Luke, quite dual edged is the Microsoft source. Now that I don't have access to the Microsoft source I'm free to show others my paper-clip and zombie. BUT it will never truly be tied to the taskbar. If I GPL the zombie I'm afforded a lot of protection and others can improve on it. I can, note, still sell it. BUT it will never truly be tied to the taskbar.

But the cost of so called professional compilers/development environments! I've used Provantage as a price reference. Visual Studio v6.0 Enterprise with Plus Pack for Windows 2000 $1387.45, a nice integrated bundle. SuSE Linux v7.1 Professional Edition $63.12, a full operating system, several compilers and several SDK's (or development libraries as they used to be known). RedHat Professional Server Edition $179.95 with a huge bundle of compilers and libraries. The non Microsoft products all come with phone and web based installation support.

Now I know that this standard argument does not factor in the training costs. But standard training costs are not a big deal for big companies especially as a long term investment. Compare the costs of Microsoft and RedHat/SuSe training schemes and generally speaking the RedHat/SuSe training schemes are cheaper. Staff may already have Windows training, but then some staff may be Unix savvy. In my own experience most IT departments of any great age have at least one Unix guru gathering dust.

Which in a about-round way brings me to one of the scarier features of Microsoft's shared source.

Compartmentalised systems usually allow information to flow in one direction. Which given the usage of most compartmentalised systems is a good thing. One of the things that protects open source code from crackers (not hackers - where would the kernel be?) is the fact that it is open to peer review and any academic will confirm that sometimes peer review is harsh. This is not to say that peer review is bad. Sometimes harsh is good. This is almost an opposite model to compartmentalised systems.

But what stops a company with access to Microsoft code screwing up? Either through human error or deliberately. If it isn't open to peer review how will it be reviewed internally and without bias?

For instance: Airline X writes a windows kernel level accelerator for Airline X's ticket system. This becomes integrated with the kernel. However a side effect of this is that Airline Y's payroll system no longer functions correctly. This could be Microsoft's fault, Airline X's fault or maybe a mis-configuration of Airline Y. Without general peer review it is common sense that it will take a lot longer to find the problem. Airline Y has to request the code from Microsoft and then review the code. How is this avoided?

Versions - are we going to see incremental Windows editions? Will the new feature created through the hard work of universities, corporations and other organisations be added in the next version? I don't think it would be an incremental release, especially if the feature can shift more units. Rev-ups for ad campaigns take weeks to co-ordinate alone. So the hard work that you put into a product or system is released when it suits somebody else and how it suits somebody else.

To sum up shared source is rather like a salmon swimming up stream only to have its young sold back by a third party for profit.

Originally posted at http://www.firetrench.com/article.php?sid=88

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