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The free software community and proprietary packages. The BitKeeper tool is being used by an increasing number of kernel developers to manage patches and the patch process in general. BitKeeper, of course, is not free software, and, as a result, a number of kernel developers have chosen not to use it. For the most part, the use of BitKeeper has not been a big problem; no kernel developer has been forced to use it to get patches into the code. The discussion of Linus's choice to go with BitKeeper has thus been somewhat more muted than one might have expected.
Until now, that is. Daniel Phillips opened a massive can of worms with this patch which removes Jeff Garzik's "Doing the BK Thing, Penguin-Style" document from the kernel source. Says Daniel in a separate posting:
I am against carrying what *appears* to be a big advertisement for Bitkeeper itself in the Linux source tree. This I see as akin to putting up a commercial billboard in a public park. Would you be comfortable with that?
The response to this patch has been mostly negative, and Linus has stated that it will not be applied. This discussion has the appearance of just another license war, but, since it reveals things about how the free software community sees proprietary programs, it's worth a look.
There seem to be two main camps in the free software realm. The first sees free software as something that is fun, useful, and preferable whenever possible. This group is far more interested in getting the job done than worrying about the pedigree of its tools. Linus Torvalds, a highly visible member of this group, expressed it this way:
Quite frankly, I don't _want_ people using Linux for ideological reasons. I think ideology sucks. This world would be a much better place if people had less ideology, and a whole lot more "I do this because it's FUN and because others might find it useful, not because I got religion".
The other point of view sees proprietary software as an evil to be avoided at all costs. Even discussion of proprietary software is to be avoided; Richard Stallman refused to answer a question for our recent interview until the name of a proprietary product was removed. Those holding this point of view are deeply bothered by the use of BitKeeper in kernel development, seeing it as a betrayal of the principles embodied in free software. The presence of a document that seemingly encourages the use of BitKeeper in the kernel source - even though the document itself is licensed under the GPL - is seen as counterproductive and even offensive.
Free software developers usually get along well, regardless of the degree of "ideology" in their world views. They are, after all, working toward the same goal, and share an interest in the code. Occasionally, however, the differences of opinion come out, and the resulting discussions can be fierce. These debates may not change many opinions, but they do at least keep everybody aware of the different views being held within our community.
(See also: Alexander Viro's classic view of the situation, which sees three distinct groups instead of two; and this week's LWN Kernel Page, which looks at the other half of the BitKeeper discussion).
AbiWord 1.0 is out - though you have to look for it. Gnotices broke the news that the long-awaited 1.0 release of the AbiWord word processor had hit the net. The folks at SourceGear are a little more restrained; as of this writing, the AbiSource web site still claims that the current version is 0.99.5. The 1.0 release can be found, though, on SourceForge, in Debian unstable, and numerous other places. Release notes still have not been posted; word is they are on the way.
We gave the 1.0 release a quick spin in our state-of-the-art testing laboratories. AbiWord has evolved into a highly capable word processor with an extensive set of features. For a great many uses it should be more than adequate. Importing of proprietary document formats has been much improved, making AbiWord a useful tool for reading obfuscated documents sent by others.
AbiWord is also very quick to start up and present a window for editing - a nice feature for those of us who get tired of having multiple kernel releases come out while we are waiting for our office suites to launch.
The most obvious omission in AbiWord 1.0 is support for tables. There is no way to create tables, and documents which contain tables are not rendered well. It would also be nice if AbiWord could integrate with other GNOME-based office software, Gnumeric, for example. The AbiWord hackers are no doubt working on these issues; until they get resolved, AbiWord will still fall short of users' needs at least some of the time. It is, nonetheless, an impressive milestone for a free software project which has come a long way over the last few years.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for the OpenOffice 1.0 release, which is likely to happen before the end of the month.
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April 25, 2002