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12/4/2007
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Top 10 Open-Source Software Stories Of 2007

Yes, there were lawsuits. But there were also important advances in GPL, Apache, Web services, and Java, which made commercial software suppliers more worried than ever.

4. Microsoft Negotiates Linux Vendor Deals.

Microsoft lined up multiple deals with Linux vendors in 2007. Granted, except for its deal with Novell, the agreements were with the smallest Linux vendors: Xandros, LG Electronics, TurboLinux, and Linspire.

As in the Novell deal, money changed hands, flowing from Microsoft to the Linux distributors in exchange for a vague future share of Linux proceeds. No one knows for sure how much. In the Novell deal, the details were aired as part of Novell's 10-Q filing as a public company. Microsoft paid $240 million for SUSE Linux subscription certificates and Novell agreed to pay Microsoft a share of its Linux and open source code receipts over a 5-year period, totaling at least $40 million. The cash injection came at a time when Novell was feeling the pain of diminishing quarterly revenues.

Exactly what money is changing hands with the smaller companies is up in the air, but the flow is probably in the same direction as in the Novell deal. There has to be an incentive, because doing deals with Microsoft is unpopular with open source supporters. For example, Linspire's CEO, Kevin Carmony, resigned six weeks after its deal was announced on June 14.

But still, these deals are worth a lot to Microsoft. They allow it to constantly remind enterprise Linux users that only a handful of Linux customers are protected from the potential liability of its threatened patent infringement lawsuits. What lawsuits? There have been none, nor have the allegedly violated Microsoft patents been specified. But that assumes the Linux deals are about patents and enforcement of intellectual property rights.

But that theory assumes that the leadership of Microsoft graduated from Harvard with MBAs telling them how to build profitable software companies. But former chairman Bill Gates didn't graduate from Harvard. Instead, underclassmen Gates and Ballmer learned in their late night card games how to play poker and how, when necessary, to play a bad hand. The Linux agreements are not about intellectual property rights. They're about playing poker with a weak hand.


3. GPLv3 Comes Out.

The thrust of the Gnu General Public License has been to turn inside-out the rules of copyright and patents. If the latter restricted who can use intellectual property, the GPL established that everyone can use GPL'd code, and everyone is required to share improvements.

To critics, this appeared at first to be more a defiance of convention than a legal agreement. Then doubters thought the issue through and decided that a license with simple terms that could be applied uniformly probably was enforceable in the eyes of the law.

When GPLv2 appeared in 1991, it included a provision to prevent GPL code distributors from restricting adopters of their code through patents. If, for example, a GPL code distributor sued a code adopter for patent infringement, then the distributor would lose his rights to use the GPL license. It was a valiant attempt by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation to roll back the nefarious influence of software patents. It was the patent tripwire in the GPL license.

Over the subsequent 16 years, new threats appeared, such as the adoption of Linux for set-top box purposes by manufacturer Tivo. The source code of the Linux embedded in Tivo boxes wasn't accessible to Tivo box users, and that "Tivoization" of the code violated the intent of the GPL, in Stallman's view.

Microsoft's agreement with Novell seemed to protect some Linux users at the expense of others. To head off these threats, GPLv3 was issued June 29 and is waiting to be tested in court. As of mid-October, 898 GPv2 projects had moved to GPLv3.

One of v3's interesting changes is to substitute "conveying" and "propagating" GPL code in place of "distributing." As part of its 2006 agreement with Novell, Microsoft issued support coupons to those who purchased Linux from Novell. Now observers debate whether the coupons, if applied to GPLv3 code from Novell, make Microsoft a conveyor or propagator of GPL code and subject to its provisions. Microsoft issued a press release saying they didn't; the Software Freedom Law Center, whose director, Eben Moglen, helped write GPLv3, said they did. Soon, perhaps in 2008, we may find out who is right.

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