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Editor's Note: With Friends Like These...

Apr 08, 2005, 23:30 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

This week saw a big change in the IT environment surrounding Linux, and I am not talking about Mandriva. This change was bigger, and potentially a lot more damaging to Linux. And it's realy subtle.

It all started on Tuesday, when reports started coming out from my colleagues attending the second annual Open Source Business Conference out in San Francisco. I chose not to attend this event, opting to spend my travel budget on LinuxWorld Canada in a couple of weeks. I find myself regretting that decision, as now I wish I could have attended both.

The first big story out on the wires from OSBC was Jonathan Schwartz's keynote, where he came out and took a whack at the GPL. Hard. It comes as no surprise, of course, that a representative of Sun Microsystems would come out against the GPL in favor of Sun's Community Development and Distribution License (CDDL). CDDL is the license, after all, for Sun's open source baby OpenSolaris.

Schwartz's arguments, like most against the GPL, played up the part of the GPL that keeps all source code added to a GPL project under the GPL. This is done keep proprietary licenses out of GPL software. But, in the past, this has been flipped around to call the GPL a viral license. "Don't put your code in a GPL project... it'll never belong to you again."

In other words, booga-booga, kids!

What Schwartz did with the argument was truly stunning. He intimated that because the GPL "steals" intellectual property from existing projects, it effectively allowed the US, where the GPL was created, to grab IP resources from smaller, less wealthy nations.

That is, in my opinion, one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. The GPL does not promote the theft of ideas. As Richard Stallman has said over and over again, a contributor's ideas are not taken in any way. If you share your code with the rest of the world, you get the incredible advantage of taking your code and everyone else's, making a unique software product, and distributing it however you want. I respectfully disagree with Stallman on some issues, but this is not one of them.

As LT reader Ben succinctly pointed out in Talkbacks earlier this week, "So... [the] GPL only allows the US to gain by having this 'IP disgorged...' So all the boom in South America and other lesser technology advanced countries are not reaping the same reward?"

The GPL works both ways, clear and simple. Case closed.

But that, I fear, is not the problem of which I alluded.

Throughout the week, there were stories about how different vendors and organizations were dealing with open source. Sun had their CDDL rah-rah session, Microsoft (one of the event's sponsors) had their soapbox for calmly explaining why their approach to open source was a better option for all. IBM delivered its message on why intellectual property was something to ultimately be shared.

You will note, that since the beginning of the article, I have not mentioned the term "Linux" at all. That's because the focus of OSBC was clearly not on Linux. There were some Linux-related announcements, of course, but the overall focus of the conference was about open source.

Oh look, you say, Brian has been hit with the clue stick. Bear with me; I step through the obvious on my way to the perceived problem.

In the past, Linux was synonymous with free software and open source software. A lot of people, in and out of the community, would use these terms interchangably. It was wrong, but no one really cared, since there were no other really strong open source contenders of Linux out there.

Now, though, this is something that Sun (and Microsoft) wants to see changed. They are now systematically buttonholing Linux into its free software category. Linux is open source, they argue, but let's be clear--it's also free software, and free software is bad for business.

Again, this is nothing new. People have been villifying the "free" aspects of Linux and other GPL software for a long time. The entire open source movement was a distancing from the aspects of free software that were deemed politically unsavory. But what is different now is that for the first time there is an open source alternative that a vendor like Sun can point to as an alternative.

And, thanks to events like the OSBC, vendors like Sun and Microsoft now have a very good platform from which to market their vision of open source, as opposed to LinuxWorld, where they have always seemed like an also-ran. Because of this, I think we are about to see a new chapter in the free vs. open software argument, this time waged at the events level.

The holy grail for event organizers are C-level executives, because they are the ones who will ultimately decide to spend money on a given technology. Get them into the hall, and you have skipped all the middle-level managers in the corporate food chain and gone right to the person holding the checkbook.

An event like OSBC is tailor-made for this kind of audience. It's platform neutral, there's no developer-types lolling about, and it's business-oriented. Things that LinuxWorld is sometimes perceived as not being. This is not accurate, of course. LinuxWorld has clearly established itself as an enterprise-level show.

But if Sun, with Microsoft's help, can get a show going that lets them connect to potential customers more than the increasingly hostile LinuxWorld environment, then you can bet they're going to take it. Or make it. (And since IDG organizes both LWE and OSBC, they win regardless.)

And, in the broader sense, we are going to see more and more marketing of open source from vendors and clients and more and more villification of that which is free software. Open source is great, the new line will be, it's just the Linux is bad. Microsoft has adopted this stance, delivering it in calmed, reasoned tones. "C'mon," they say, "what do you need to see the source code for, anyway?" Calm. Lulling. And a far cry from the distasteful "cancer" statements from Ballmer.

Sun is picking up on this approach, and is running with it, too. Though they clearly feel like they can be more aggressive, since they are not a proprietary monopoly like big, bad Microsoft. Sun is the underdog, in their own eyes, and they are using the magic of open source to give, give, give. Just use the CDDL, instead. It's better, you won't get sued. Calm. Lulling.

But let's not be fooled. Sun wants to make money. The very things they accused Red Hat of doing: roping in software vendors, charging exhorbitant support fees... these are all things Sun will do with OpenSolaris in a heartbeat if they get the chance. They have already started the process with Computer Associates. Remember them? The big supporters of Linux?

At the OSDL Summit, I pointed out CA's moves to distance themselves from Linux and get closer to Sun? Guess what? I was right, as an IT Week story today reported, "Computer Associates is talking to fellow software vendors including Sun Microsystems and IBM about creating a common commercial open source licence for future projects."

The license they are looking at? CDDL, of course. How IBM is involved in this is a mystery--my hope is that this was name-dropping on CA's part.

The new hot thing is clearly going to be open source, which Linux's adversaries hope will be enough to start turning heads away from Linux and towards their own offerings. If the ideology of Linux is an attractor, then Sun is going to co-opt it for themselves and poison Linux's root ideology of free software at the same time.

There is, of course, one flaw in this whole grand scheme: ideology, while attractive at varying levels, is not the sole reason to use Linux.

I use Linux because it fits my technological needs, it's free, and it's Free. In that order. For others, it's a different order. The fact that it's Free may be the most important reason, but for many users it's not, and this is what may ultimately defuse Sun's (and proprietary vendors') plans.

To date, Sun has launched scathing attacks on how Linux is not free (as in cost). Now, they are trash-talking the Free (as in freedom) aspects of Linux. But they have been very quiet on the technological aspects of Linux. Why? Because Solaris is not a technological match for Linux. If it was, why was it continually losing market share to Linux before the decision was made to go to an open-source version?

Linux will still grow, because the reason businesses choose it is not about Freedom. It is about what works best for the least amount of money. OpenSolaris has yet to demonstrate that it can counter Linux on this point, preferring instead to launch the arguments it can make right now without demonstrating any technology: sales and marketing. If it can't produce a product that it competitive, then all of these recent statements are just clouds of dust.

For now, get ready for some bashing from the "new" open source community. Until the technological strengths of Linux are fully recognized, there's going to be some serious FUD ahead.