Open source here we come

It's hardly groundbreaking to be writing about Linux as a world-changing phenomenon. Yet, finally, a couple of weeks ago, Linux convinced me it really is changing this small corner of the planet.

It’s hardly groundbreaking to be writing about Linux as a world-changing phenomenon. As long as four years ago our US columnist Nicholas Petreley said as much. And that was after first mentioning the subject four years earlier.

Yet, finally, a couple of weeks ago, Linux convinced me it really is changing this small corner of the planet. Whether the whole world will eventually be affected — to the extent, say, that it is by Microsoft — I’m not brave enough to say. But certainly, Microsoft itself will be unable to resist changing in response to the Linux movement.

Forgive me if I pay a return visit to the scene where evidence of Linux’s rise struck me. It was at Computerworld Expo in Auckland at the start of the month. Signs that Linux is capturing computer users’ imaginations — if not market share — were everywhere: Linux resellers not only commanded large areas of floor space but also monopolised show sentiment; they had attendees lapping up technical tips on how to tweak Linux apps, to a degree I’ve never seen at a Microsoft presentation. (Typically, those affairs centre on the baffling array of new word processor or spreadsheet features which users apparently demanded in the latest version — all yours for $1400, or $750 as an upgrade.)

References to software prices aside, sentiment is one of the main battlegrounds on which this war will be fought, and Microsoft’s instinctive urge to resist Linux’s spread is already costing it. I’ve just referred to a war between Linux and Microsoft, but that paints a simpler picture than is the case. Linux, symbolised by Tux the penguin, is just the most visible product of the open source movement. Even referring to the open source movement as representative of one side in the war isn’t wholly accurate. Before there was an open source movement there was the Free Software Foundation, whose origins go back to 1985, and whose spokesman remains former MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab dweller Richard Stallman.

Stallman is not at war with Microsoft but is a committed proponent of free software — software that anyone can use — which sets him somewhat at odds with the open source movement. Stallman created the general public licence (GPL) concept, which dictates that any modifications made to open source code must then also be made freely available. He was publicly defending this model as recently as last month at a panel discussion in Washington of the merits of open source versus proprietary software. He is anxious that the world understand his definition of “free”, which has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with ensuring open source code not be hijacked by developers of proprietary software. This was the ethos which existed in the MIT lab in the early 1970s — software wasn’t a product but a tool, which would be made available for anyone to use.

But one man’s freedom is another’s shackle. As far as Microsoft is concerned, open source software threatens its freedom to make lots of money from its proprietary operating systems and applications. Its main line of attack is to raise the bogey of the GPL, which it did this month at a New Zealand Computer Society meeting. Making an issue of it, though, merely hands Microsoft-bashers another weapon.

Open source advocates lay the GPL bogey to rest by pointing out that organisations can make a choice between low-cost development based on non-proprietary software, the products of which they might then have to put in the public domain, or more expensive proprietary development. For projects that aren’t at the organisation’s core, open source is the pragmatic choice.

The same open source proponents complain that pragmatic is what Richard Stallman is not. His ideals might be pure, but you couldn’t base a business on them. Hence the tension between the open source and free camps.

Pragmaticism, it seems to me, is the national characteristic that will drive Linux/open source adoption in New Zealand, and that which was evident at Computerworld Expo. It is very hard for most of us to go past products that, to all intents and purposes, give us the functionality we need for a fraction of the price of the more alluringly packaged variety. That’s something Stephen Tindall discovered, to his gain. Microsoft is about to learn it too, to its loss.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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