‘Idealized’ Linux reshaped by corporate pragmatism

While it’s a valiant cause, the “”idealized social movement”” that promotes the purity of open source software is losing out to a more “”pragmatic, balanced approach,”” according to a Canadian legal expert.

Marcus Bornfreund, manager of the law and technology program at the University of Ottawa, acknowledged that the open source movement is “”a social trend that’s reaching critical mass.

“”(But) it’s an idealized social movement because at some point, (there was a lot of) time, energy and money that had to go into developing the software. So the base products that these things are built off of need to be protected,”” he said last week, prior to the Open Source Weekend, an event at Carleton University that featured a panel of open source experts.

The pure “”social vision”” held by some open source supporters is to share software code free of charge so others can develop it and make improvements accordingly, said Bornfreund. Yet, the reality is that “”social vision never wins,”” he added.

“”The best approach is always the balanced middle path. In time, this whole thing will be self-correcting so that if IBM decides to use an open source product and they have their developers put man hours into it, they will also (freely) release any improvements in their derivative works,”” said Bornfreund.

This means favouring “”copyleft”” licenses, which are basically copyright agreements, he said. Copyleft can still require attribution in some cases, along with making the original source code and any derivatives freely available, said Bornfreund. “”And if you don’t, then the (provider can say) ‘I’ll see you in court because this is a legally enforceable agreement.’””

The move away from an idealized open source approach began four years ago, said Jim Elliot, advocate for the IBM Canada’s corporate Linux team. Elliot also presented at the Open Source Weekend.

“”I first saw it happen at Linux World 2000 which changed from being all kinds of ‘dot-orgs’ to a real commercial focus where you had big IBM, HP, Sun and Compaq booths. Every year, Linux and open source in general have become core to the commercial sector which is moving from the idealized (vision) to the practical uses of open source software.””

That’s not to say that the research community isn’t still there and isn’t involved, added Elliot. “”The community size has grown.””

In the wake of such expansive growth, the bigger question becomes: “”What would happened if all the programmers and businesses were open source, and nobody had a day job and couldn’t work on these things at night out of their own interest?”” asked Bornfreund.

“”That’s what hasn’t been examined yet. And that’s why I would never go so far as to say, ‘This is the Holy Grail answer’ in that everything needs to be open sourced. I think there needs to be a balance.””

Elliot said IBM and others will continue to build Linux and open source solutions into “”practical and useful tools.”” Currently, IBM’s Linux strategy is to focus primarily on the server space, the area where Linux enjoys its highest market share, he said, while acknowledging the emerging interest in the client area, illustrated by Linux-powered TiVo and Linksys.

One thing Elliot isn’t counting on is a rapid move toward Linux-powered general purpose desktops. Linux’s inventor Linus Torvalds has said himself that the operating system is five to 10 years away from “”being made for the masses,”” said Elliot.

Meanwhile, high-tech giants will continue to invest millions in Linux operating systems, making the technology even more of a viable alternative to its closed-source competitors, Chris Pratt told ITBusiness.ca last year.

“”This is absolutely an industry-wide initiative,”” said the manager of e-server strategic initiatives for IBM Canada.

Pratt said IBM, along with other IT heavyweights, will continue to advance the capacity of Linux. Such steps include the joint announcement IBM made with SuSE Linux last year. Dubbed “”the next critical step in the maturation”” of the system, the pair announced “”the first-ever security certification of Linux.””

The mutual goal to advance the capabilities of Linux has created some “”strange bedfellows,”” said Elliot, pointing to initiatives such as the Open Source Development Labs, a global consortium of leading technology companies dedicated to accelerating the adoption of Linux. The consortium has united the likes of IBM, Alcatel, Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems in a common cause, observed Elliot.

Consequently, analysts have predicted a rapid maturation of Linux and open source software.

Richard Fichera, a research fellow at Massachusetts-based Forrester Research predicted the debate between using Linux versus closed-source operating systems will intensify over the coming years.

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