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9/29/2004
03:29 AM
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Pie Fight At The Open-Source Corral

We love it when tech moguls talk dirty to each other. Back in the good old days, Scot McNealy and Steve Ballmer would spare no effort to insult one another, and Larry Ellison rarely has a good word for anyone, including his own underlings. Windows will give you bad breath, and Linux causes lung cancer, if you believe the big guys' propaganda mills.

We love it when tech moguls talk dirty to each other. Back in the good old days, Scot McNealy and Steve Ballmer would spare no effort to insult one another, and Larry Ellison rarely has a good word for anyone, including his own underlings. Windows will give you bad breath, and Linux causes lung cancer, if you believe the big guys' propaganda mills.

Yet most of the time, these companies know how to work together when it matters. They may fight, and those fights may get ugly sometimes, but you still get the feeling that things are under control.

I wish we could say the same of the open-source community.

The recent intellectual property dispute between Furthermore and Mambo should have been a low-key affair with one goal: to avoid dragging out the companies' dirty laundry in front of customers. What we got was a pie fight involving not only Furthermore, Mambo and its parent company Miro, but also any number of Mambo users who may soon get nasty lawyer letters through no fault of their own.

The fact is, Furthermore president Brian Connolly might have a legitimate beef with Mambo, and a neutral third party should take a close look at both sides' claims. Yet the Mambo developers, and by extension their protectors at Miro, prefer to bluff and bluster their way through this mess. Open Source Software Institute Executive Director John Weathersby's mediation efforts might have settled this quickly, quietly and in a civilized manner. Apparently, however, it's preferable to deal with these things through the use of insults, innuendo and other standard open-source business practices.

Am I taking an extreme view here? Ask the potential customers who see this nonsense and wonder if dealing with open-source software might be more trouble than it's worth. Miro can dismiss Connolly as a maniac, and it can stir the pot with calls for support and solidarity from the open-source community. But if Connolly does have a case, how many businesses will touch Mambo with a ten-foot pole until that case is settled?

There's the rub for the open-source community, where "dispute resolution" all too often means trading insults until one side gives up and stalks away. This tendency to turn even minor disputes into religious wars could make open-source software too risky and too expensive for companies that value relationships with reliable, stable vendors. It's time for open-source companies to find a better way to settle these conflicts.

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