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Linux Heavyweights Sound Off At Summit

Patent issues and lack of integration of desktop software could be stumbling blocks

Open-source software's influence continues to spread worldwide, but the technology's greatest challenges lie ahead as it's asked to take on an increasing number of business functions. Business customers want a long-term road map, even though open-source leaders aren't completely comfortable with the idea of looking that far ahead.

"I distrust people with visions," Linux creator and Open Source Development Lab fellow Linus Torvalds said last week during a keynote at OSDL's Enterprise Linux summit. "When you look ahead at the utopia, that's when you stumble."

Despite his disapproval, Torvalds couldn't help sharing some observations he's made as demand for open-source has grown. "If you look at how things have progressed, it's become more of an ecosystem," he said. "In the long run, we won't see any kind of patchwork where you can see the individual patches. There will be one system that will provide everything you need," he said, acknowledging, "We're not there yet."

But momentum is growing. Sales of desktops and servers running Linux, combined with the value of hardware devices repurposed to run Linux, exceeded $14 billion in 2003 and are expected to reach as much as $38 billion by 2008, according to a study conducted late last year by market researcher IDC.

'I distrust people with visions,' says Torvalds, left, with Morton, center, and Kapor.

"I distrust people with visions," says Torvalds, left, with Morton, center, and Kapor.
Uncertainty over intellectual-property claims against open-source software, a slowly maturing desktop version, and a disproportionate amount of resources committed to different open-source projects are some of the issues the open-source community needs to address to allow the technology to reach its full potential.

"The patent issue could be a big stumbling block," said Mitch Kapor, chair of the Open Source Applications Foundation, at the OSDL keynote. Kapor founded Lotus Development Corp. in 1982 and OSAF in 2001 to develop a personal-information-manager application using open-source tools and methods.

A proliferation of poorly researched software patents could let vendors such as Microsoft launch the equivalent of a "patent WMD," where technology users are caught between implementing technology at the risk of costly litigation and taking a pass on potentially useful technology, Kapor said.

But the threat of patent lawsuits isn't any greater for open-source software than for proprietary apps, says Andy Miller, VP of technology at office-supplies provider and Linux user Corporate Express Inc., which in 2001 was sued by iWork Software LLC for patent infringement. "Pretty much all software has a patent-issue risk associated with it," Miller says, adding that the iWork case has been settled.

A desktop version of Linux hasn't advanced as rapidly as the server version for a number of reasons. Microsoft's dominance in the desktop operating-system market is a big reason, but Kapor suggested another: the nature of desktop Linux development. Each component that comprises a desktop operating environment, whether the graphical interface, productivity applications, or browser, is being developed by different groups with little collaboration.

"It's not principally a technical issue," Kapor said. Rather, it's been a lack of motivation for these groups of developers to create a unified interface for users.

The ability for different, and at times competing, software-development projects to emerge is one of open source's greatest strengths, Torvalds said. Still, lead Linux kernel maintainer Andrew Morton acknowledged during the keynote, "What we should concentrate on is well-defined interfaces and standards so that the projects can work together."

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