Open source’s benefits to business spelled out

The head of the Free Software Foundation says the new GPL version will enable corporate users to get more from non-proprietary apps

Free Software Foundation (FSF) leader Richard Stallman said at the launch of version 3 of the General Public License (GPLv3) late last month that businesses are “foolish” not to adopt non-proprietary technologies.

Surrounded by supporters from the software programming and academic fields on the June 29 launch at the foundation’s Boston headquarters, Stallman detailed his opinions on why businesses should use open source software.

By turning to alternatives like the GNU operating system rather than the proprietary technologies that dominate corporate IT shops today, Stallman said, businesses will become less dependent on software vendors to help solve many of the issues around applications development and security that currently prove troublesome.

“Business users should have the same freedom over the control of their software as everyone else, and for businesses to use software they don’t have control over is foolish,” Stallman said.

“Today, many businesses look at free software in terms of convenience and say that it is impossible to make a shift, but there is already free software available for doing a lot of the jobs businesses want to do.”

As a stack of empty boxes bearing the logo of Microsoft’s Vista OS stood in a nearby room awaiting use in some sort of protest against the software giant, Stallman cited multiple “dangers” he sees in the use of such products.

For example, he said that Microsoft’s process of removing support for various computing devices and applications in its products forces businesses into a never-ending cycle of “forced upgrades”, a system he said should be made illegal.

In another sense, onboard functions like Vista’s remote software upgrade feature allow Microsoft to essentially take control and manipulate end-users’ computers, he said.

Another hotspot for the FSF’s advocacy efforts is its continued opposition to DRM (digital rights management) technologies, such as those built into both Microsoft and Apple products.

“Businesses have to give up their current approach and suffer some of the inconvenience of moving to free software to get back control, but that is a long-term process, and businesses are typically focused on the short term,” Stallman said. “Like all areas of computing, business users must insist on the same level of freedom as everyone else; it’s not just an alternative to proprietary software, it’s the only way to ethically defend the rights of users.”

As with its predecessors, GPLv3 is a licensing model for use by providers of free software programs that allows products covered by the certification to be altered by their users as they so choose, without fear of subsequent copyright infringement charges.

Among the most important updates in the newest version of GPL — the first official update of the model since the previous version was released June 1991 — are new implications for free software licensing and compatibility, additional definitions for programmatic source code, and terms that prevent so-called “tivo-isation” of free software programs — the practice by device makers of using hardware features to prevent users from running modified software programs on their products.

The latter term is derived from the use of the GNU OS on digital video recorders made by TiVo.

The new licensing terms are meant specifically to prevent additional deals like the joint patent agreement signed between Microsoft and Novell in November 2006, which the FSF has characterised previously as “a narrow and discriminatory promise by a patent holder not to sue customers of one particular distributor of a GPL-covered program.”

At the launch, Stallman noted that “The freedom of users and developers to use software as they choose has been put in danger by these types of patent agreements.

“We wanted to do whatever we needed to do to abolish this type of practice and protect users from being sued by patent holders.”

While the use of free software programs like GNU remains nascent among businness users by most estimates, some experts believe that companies can begin adopting the tools today.

For instance, the ability to use free programs to build customised EDI systems, such as those used by companies to trade materials with partners, is already available, says Thomas Dukleth, CEO of Agogme, a maker of a tool used to aid in the cataloguing and searching of library books.

“The free software programs necessary to support systems like EDI already exist,” Dukleth says.

“Some libraries are already using free software to do this very sort of thing.”

Sanjoy Mahajan, an associate director for teaching initiatives at MIT who lectures in electrical engineering, says businesses can significantly benefit from the ability to see the source code in their software programs.

It’s much easier to find potential security flaws and build new features on top of existing programs when the underpinnings of the technologies being used aren’t hidden as they are in proprietary products, he says.

“You have companies today saying that they can’t accept file attachments in Office 2007 because the product is too incompatible with their existing systems, which is something that definitely interferes with business,” he says.

“When something in the free software world gets improved, there’s no waiting to buy a new licence — everything is shared with all users, so everyone benefits,” he says. “I think that now would be a good time for businesses to put more effort into free software; they will get back more than they put in.”

Whether or not many enterprise businesses heed such advice remains to be seen, but in the area of vendor support, GPLv3 appears to have already impressed some significant players.

In an email in response to a query by InfoWorld, officials at Sun lauded the additional licensing clarity provided by the updated version, and the company said it would continue to pursue many different distribution models.

“We regard the GPLv3 as a great achievement by the FSF in particular and by the greater open-source community of free software communities,” Simon Phipps, Sun’s chief open source officer, notes.

“Sun believes the GPLv3 revisions represent important steps in the evolution of the free software movement. In particular, it clarifies language that was unclear in GPLv2 and addresses many issues that did not exist when GPLv2 was written more than 15 years ago,” Phipps says.

“We have a strategy to free all our software into open-source communities, and we have strategies for each technology that lead us to choose certain licences on a case-by-case basis.”

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