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Motif is open source - almost. The Open Group has announced that the Motif toolkit, long the standard X toolkit on commercial Unix systems, has been released under a "public license." This license looks roughly GPLish in that it requires that source be made available and disallows restrictions on redistribution. It has an interesting twist, however, in that it only allows for use of the software on "operating systems which are themselves Open Source programs."
That restriction violates section eight of the Open Source Definition, in that it ties the software to specific products. The Open Group recognizes that its license is not "open source," and deals with the issue explicitly in the Open Motif FAQ. They claim they hope to make it truly open source at some point in the future.
The license also fails to define an "operating system." Presumably it can run over the Linux kernel - but what if the user is running a proprietary X server? Can you run it on OS X, with its BSD-based kernel? According to the FAQ, the answer would appear to be "yes." Mac users may prove slow to take the opportunity to run Motif on their systems, however.
Chances are, anyway, that the license will prove good enough to get Open Motif onto the CDs of most or all of the major distributions. And that, of course, is the Open Group's goal. Motif currently is tied to a slowly dying platform - proprietary Unix systems. While commercial Motif products have been available for Linux for years, interest has been relatively low. It is, after all, not free software.
Now it is perhaps free enough, but it also looks very much like too little, too late. Two years ago, Motif might have become the toolkit (and desktop) of choice for Linux. But in that time the Linux world has learned to do very nicely without Motif, and has developed two high-quality alternatives. It is hard to imagine a newly-freed Motif attracting the same sort of incredibly vibrant and productive development team that characterizes both GNOME and KDE. Even in its heyday, Motif never generated all that much enthusiasm; why should it do so now when there are newer and better systems available?
So Open Motif looks to have a useful role in helping the porting of legacy software from proprietary Unix systems, but it may well not succeed much beyond that. It is, of course, a good thing to have more code available, and there may well be valuable lessons to learn from Open Motif. But its window of opportunity to take over the Linux desktop closed some time ago.
(See also: the LessTif project which intends to continue in its (successful, so far) effort to create a truly free Motif clone; ICS's announcement of Open Motif services; Imperial Software's announcement of its Open Motif distribution, and the new, relaunched MotifZone site).
Microsoft versus Slashdot. Most readers will have long since seen Microsoft's notice to Slashdot requiring the removal of some comments posted to the site that are alleged to violate Microsoft's copyrights. In the simple facts of the matter, Microsoft might even have a point. If we respect copyright law (which, after all, provides the force behind the GPL), we should respect it for everybody. Directly posting Microsoft's copyrighted material was probably not the best move.
Microsoft is also complaining about a couple of other things, including instructions on how to avoid the "click-wrap" license and links to the material on other sites. Its case seems rather weaker here. If we value the web at all, we certainly need to resist making linking a crime.
The real point of interest here, though, is that this affair highlights once again the form that the real counterattack against free software may take. Free software can not be bought out, it is tremendously difficult to compete against, and FUD tactics have proven mostly ineffective. It is a sad possibility that intellectual property law may work where other tactics have failed. Why compete against free software, if you can simply prevent its development and/or distribution in the first place?
The issue in question at the moment is Microsoft's extensions to the Kerberos protocol. With a few small tweaks, Microsoft has taken an open standard and turned it into a proprietary, non-interoperable mess. Now they seek to prevent the development of code which will restore interoperability to heterogeneous networks. It is hard to imagine a more transparent attempt to maintain a monopoly at the consumers' expense.
Like the DVD and CyberPatrol cases, this one threatens our right to program. For years free software was hampered by lack of acceptance, users, and developers. What a shame it will be if, now that those obstacles have been overcome, free software is blocked by intellectual property claims and lawyers. We can not afford to let things go that way.
(See also: this Technocrat article by Bruce Perens saying that the Kerberos problem could have been avoided had the Kerberos protocol been covered by a different license).
SGI pushes toward Linux. SGI has announced a new line of workstations which will, it hopes, begin to turn around the company's poor performance in recent years. The systems look more reasonable than SGI's last attempt: the pricing is reasonable, the graphics are good, and so on. These might actually be computers that somebody wants to buy.
SGI may claim that it still stands behind IRIX, but the press release tells another story. The name "IRIX" is mentioned three times; "Linux," instead, appears 25 times. (NT is mentioned eight times). These systems are being sold as Linux machines, not IRIX machines. Thus, SGI has jumped into the business of putting Linux on the desktop - a place where few have dared to go.
Happily, SGI evidently plans to go beyond its current single distribution offering by adding support for SuSE and TurboLinux as well.
On the development side, SGI has also announced the release of its C, C++, and Fortran compilers for the IA-64 architecture. According to the announcement: "These Linux compilers, which were recently demonstrated at Intel's Spring 2000 Developer Forum in Palm Springs, Calif., contain additional optimizations that take advantage of the power of the Itanium processor over those of other public compiler implementations." In other words, they appear to be positioning themselves as competition for gcc as the standard Linux compiler for the IA-64. The donation of technology is always welcome - especially for a tricky task like compiling for the IA-64 - but one hopes that SGI can find a way to fold its improvements into gcc.
In any case, the compilers join a very long list of SGI contributions to Linux. SGI has, in fact, become one of the larger corporate contributors to the system, donating code for compilers, graphics, the kernel, and more. SGI appears to be quite serious about Linux. With luck, all this work will help SGI find success in the Linux arena.
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May 18, 2000