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A new, proprietary web? Back in mid-August, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) put out a draft policy on the incorporation of patented technology into web standards. The W3C, evidently, did not feel much need to publicize this draft, and it came dangerously near to ending its comment period with almost nobody realizing what was in it. That would have been an unfortunate development. Fortunately, Adam Warner was paying attention and issued a detailed call for action telling the community what was up.
So, what is up, exactly? The draft policy would allow the W3C to incorporate patented technology into web standards as long as the patent holder agreed to license the technology in a "reasonable and non-discriminatory" manner. This policy, called RAND, makes it possible for vendors of proprietary products to know that they can use the given technology.
The problem, of course, is that it is not generally possible for free software to use patented algorithms. If an implementation of an algorithm can not be distributed without the payment of royalties, the code obviously can not be put up for download on the net. And the GPL, of course, does not allow the inclusion of code with such restrictions.
Imagine a future web whose standards include patented technology. That is a web that can only be accessed with proprietary software - a very different web than the one we have now. It is, conceivably, a web without Apache, Mozilla, Konqueror, and many other tools we depend on. It's a web that would make certain vendors very happy, since it would eliminate the free software threat.
This is a real scenario, and one that could happen quickly. Consider the "Scalable Vector Graphics" (SVG) standard, adopted by the W3C on September 4. This standard, in fact, includes patented technology (of the worst, stupid software patent variety) from Apple, which will be available under RAND terms. In other words, the W3C is already behaving as if the new policy were in force, which casts some doubt on its public comment policy. SVG is not only proprietary, but the licensing terms are not publicly available. SVG, in other words, is inaccessible to free software. See Daniel Phillips's well-researched comments for more information on SVG.
There is a possible alternative scenario, of course to the proprietary web: the W3C, by endorsing proprietary standards, finds itself left behind by a web that does not want to go that way. The Open Group's attempt to take X11 proprietary has been put forward as an example of how this could happen. That time, however, we had the XFree86 project, which was already the real heart of X11 development. It is not clear that there is a body that is well positioned to supersede the W3C in this manner. It may not be so easy this time.
If necessary, however, that is what we will have to do.
In response to the last-minute outcry, the W3C has extended the comment period, but only to October 11. Now is the time to send in polite, well-reasoned arguments on why this policy should not be adopted. The people attempting to push through this policy know very well what they are doing, but they may still respond to a determined show of opposition. There may still be time to make a difference here. Perhaps we can avoid a corporate takeover of the web.
(See also: the patent policy comment list, which contains the comments posted so far. Included therein are comments from Alan Cox, Andrew Tridgell, Bruce Perens, Chuck Mead, Dan York, Eben Moglen (on behalf of the Free Software Foundation), Ian Clarke, Jeremy Allison, Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, John Gilmore, Richard Stallman, Russell Nelson, Theo de Raadt, Tim O'Reilly, and many, many others).
Opportunities in migration services? Last week, the Gartner Group suggested that businesses should consider moving away from IIS toward other, more secure web servers. The latest Netcraft survey suggests that a number of businesses are doing exactly that - tens of thousands of IIS-based web sites have disappeared from the net recently. Corporate IT operations will stay with a given course through inertia for a long time, but, with a sufficient push, they will start looking at alternatives. Microsoft's more recent licensing and upgrade policies are giving more businesses reasons to look around as well.
It seems there should be an opportunity here. After being told for years that superior alternatives exist in the form of free software, some businesses are starting to look at them. But if all those businesses encounter is a pointer to a download site and a collection of HOWTOs, they may not look for very long. Now is the time for enterprising free software businesses to step forward with well-designed, targeted migration services.
Starnix has been quick to see the opportunity here: the Toronto-based company has announced a new service to help companies migrate away from IIS. The package includes a version of Apache hosted on a secured Linux system, consulting, and support services. Here is an offering that should be successful; it is a narrowly-targeted service which meets a pressing business need.
There should be other such opportunities in the free software world. Linux is increasingly ready to take on a wider role in corporate computing, and that will create opportunities for companies that can help. Those seeking to profit off such opportunities should proceed carefully, however; there are several prerequisites that must be met:
Free software support offerings probably need another look as well. These offerings look much like support services for proprietary software. The software in question becomes a black box, and the support provider takes charge of making it work. But one of the advantages of free software is that it is not a black box. "We'll take charge" services can deprive their customers of some of the advantages of free software. True free software support services should bring their customers into the free software community.
Helping customers migrate from proprietary products may not be the most exciting business to be in. And it certainly will not be an easy business. But it could well prove to be a workable business model for those working with free software, even in these difficult times.
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October 4, 2001