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What is open source? There have been a few amusing attempts to
characterize the open source world this week; here's a summary.
Is open source:
- Communist? Steve Ballmer, President and CEO of Microsoft,
thinks so, according to comments reprinted in this
article in The Register. "And it had, you know, the
characteristics of communism that people love so very, very much about
it. That is, it's free."
The "communist" label comes out every now and then. Even this many
years after the end of the cold war, the term has great power in the
U.S. One could almost even make a corollary to Godwin's Law: when
somebody calls somebody else a communist, it means they have run out
of real things to say and the conversation is over.
In any case, one wouldn't think that a communist phenomenon would be
so thick with libertarians and venture capitalists. Free software is
a capitalist phenomenon: free agents are contributing to a public good
because it is in their own selfish interest to do so. Use of words
like "communist" show either a lack of understanding of free software
or a great fear of it - or both.
- Unoriginal? Michael Swaine, generally a supporter of free
software, questioned its originality in this Web
Review article. "Free Software/Open Source is, judging by the
projects so far, chiefly about liberating existing software rather
than creating something startlingly new."
This charge, too, is not new. It is true that much of what's going on
in the free software world is an attempt to create free versions of
the best of what's already out there. That is, after all, the code
that people want now. It seems silly to criticize people for
But consider also: the TCP/IP protocols, the domain name system, the
world wide web (built with open-source browsers and servers until
Netscape took them proprietary), the web's predecessors (gopher,
WAIS), anonymous FTP, USENET, virtual desktops, ReiserFS, EROS, Tcl/Tk, Perl, Python,
SourceForge, and many more. The truly original open source code tends
to be invisible because either (1) it's a fundamental part of the
infrastructure we all use, or (2) it's so original that it remains
obscure - for now.
- The death of the software industry? Dave Winer took
an opportunity to dig into open source as part of a column on the
Napster issue. "Believe it or not, I'd like to thank the music
industry for bringing money into the discussion again. Open source
hype destroyed the economy of software. Now perhaps we can rebuild it,
based on reality.... The software industry has already been decimated
by the culture of piracy, both in ideas and implementations, through
patents, open source and the Internet bubble."
It would be curious to see just what parts of the software industry
have been "decimated" by open source. Free alternatives can indeed
create trouble for proprietary software vendors - back in the late
1980's, there were several companies selling emacs, for example. One
could also blame SCO's current troubles on Linux. (For more on SCO,
Caldera, and Linux, see this
week's Commerce page).
But the software industry is also highly dynamic, and few companies
stay on top for long. SCO might have been just as easily toppled by
Windows 2000. Free software has not, certainly, created this
situation. The software industry is changing in response to free
software, just as it has changed in response to many other factors.
It remains vibrant and competitive, and that is unlikely to change.
The free software world is far from perfect, but criticism like that
shown above misses the point. Expect to see more of it in the future,
Eric S. Raymond's latest missive is entitled Two
faces and Big Lies; it's about DeCSS, Napster, and related issues.
Eric rips into just about everybody with this one, from the DVD Copy
Control Association through to people ripping off copyrighted music through
It's worth reading. The free software community needs to come to a
consistent ethical position on these things. As Eric says:
We have a special responsibility because we are the king toolmakers of
the digital age; our work and our values will have a large part in
shaping the future of communications and media everywhere. We have a
special need because the way these intellectual-property issues work out
will come back to haunt us more than most if we get then wrong.
One thing that's worth adding to this discussion: remember that the free
software world, too, is dependent on copyrights. Licenses like the GPL
depend on copyright law. The free software world has a lot to contribute
to the discussion on just how far copyright protections should apply, but
if we promote the ignoring of copyright altogether, we are polluting our
The Linux Development Platform Specification version 1.0-beta was
released by the Free Standards Project on
July 22. LWN mentioned the release in the daily
updates page, but an editorial slip caused it to be dropped from the
July 27 weekly edition. We regret the error.
The LDPS is interesting. It's essentially a stopgap specification
designed to help in the creation of programs that are portable between
Linux distributions; eventually it should be incorporated within the full
Linux Standard Base. The LSB has proved to be long in coming; meanwhile
the LDPS can be used, by developers and distributors both, to avoid the
worst portability problems
The LDPS developers are looking for feedback! If you have suggestions for
improvements, they should go back to the Free Standards project by
August 7. Please have a look at the "comment instructions" on the LDPS
1.0-beta page; they are asking that comments use a specific format.
text itself makes interesting reading. It is short and to the point,
and it highlights just what the portability problems between Linux
distributions really are. Some of these include:
- Different versions of the C libraries. The worst of the glibc
portability problems are hopefully behind us, but the LDPS recommends
sticking with glibc-2.1.2 or 2.1.3 only.
- Dynamic C++ libraries. The LDPS recommends that, in general, dynamic
linking with libraries should be used. C++, however, brings in a
number of interesting linking and runtime issues; to avoid
difficulties, the LDPS recommends static linking be used with C++
- The ncurses library is singled out as having an unstable interface and
being a source of portability problems.
- Vendor-supplied patches to the kernel - usually backports of 2.4
features into the 2.2 kernel. These patches include raw I/O, the new
RAID system, PCMCIA (normally maintained separately from the 2.2
kernel), and many others.
There is more to the list than what we have listed above, of course. There
are two patterns that emerge from this list: interfaces that change, and
vendor additions. As Linux has matured, the magnitude of both of these
problems has been reduced, but it's far from clear that they will ever go
away. Interfaces change because people find better ways of doing things.
There is value in keeping backward compatibility, but there is also a point
where the whole system gets weighed down by compatibility code. Sometimes
you simply have to move forward. The willingness to occasionally break old
interfaces is what will keep Linux alive for many years to come.
And, of course, the open source nature of the system means that
distributors will always be able to tweak the code to meet their customers'
needs. The best of these changes usually make it into the code base and
become standard features. But there will always be good reasons to add
Thus, for all the talk of incompatibility and fragmentation between
distributions, we see from the LDPS that the list of real portability
problems is small, and that the problems that do exist reflect the
strengths of the Linux platform.
CopyLeft was added as a defendant in the DVD case this week. The
DVDCCA pigeonholed them into one of the "John Doe" slots on the suit after
apparently figuring out that CopyLeft is selling T-shirts with the
DeCSS code on the back. This move will, of course, bring the "free speech"
aspect of the case into an even more prominent position.
The one immediate result, however, seems to be that CopyLeft is selling far
more shirts. Since each shirt sold generates $4 for the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, the DVDCCA may end up doing a favor for the defense.
Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.
OpenBSD fuzz, CVS insecurities, forensics tools.
- Kernel: A major VM rewrite in
2.5; changes to mount(2), getting configuration information from
European Linux distribution numbers, Corel Linux Second edition
coming soon, Red Hat "Pinstripe".
The OpenTcl movement, Python licensing issues, Linux printing advances.
Caldera buys parts of SCO, Linux on S/390, More Red Hat News.
- Back page: Linux links,
this week in Linux history, and
letters to the editor
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August 3, 2000