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Leading items and editorials

RMS on OpenMotif. Richard Stallman has, in classic form, posted this polemic against the use of Open Motif. His complaint, of course, is that Open Motif's license is not an open source license. According to RMS:
Their announcement says they have released Motif to "the open source community", but this is true only in an unnatural interpretation of the words. They have not made Motif available within the free software community; instead, they have invited the people in the free software community to leave the community by using Motif.
The point he makes is valid, and has been made by a number of other people as well. Open Motif has never claimed to have an open source license - though one occasionally sees hints that the license will become truly free at some (indeterminate) point in the future when the lawyers for all the involved parties can be convinced.

Meanwhile, Mr. Stallman's latest has drawn a round of criticism from those who see him as a perpetually unsatisfied whiner. It is true that he complains a lot, and, in the process, has managed to offend a lot of people in the Linux community (and beyond). But he plays an important role: RMS is the free software conscience that has guided our community for almost twenty years. Freedom is important. While many of us may be more pragmatic in how we go about our daily lives, we are all well served by having an uncompromising, pro-freedom voice out there.

And speaking of why freedom matters...

Microsoft patents a file format. We first saw the news on Advogato that the VirtualDub program, a GPL'd video capture and processing program, had been forced by Microsoft to remove support for the Active Stream Format (ASF). It seems that Microsoft has a patent on that particular format, and wasn't pleased with the existence of a free implementation. Feeling that it lacks the resources to stand up to Microsoft on this issue, VirtualDub has removed support for ASF.

This looks like yet another software patent issue. But there is a difference here: Microsoft is claiming patent protection on a file format. It is not at all hard to see what could happen with an extension of that claim. Any serious word processor in the commercial world has to be able to cope, somehow, with the numerous variations of Microsoft's Word format. If that format were to come under patent protection, programs like StarOffice, ApplixWare, and WordPerfect could lose the ability to work with Word files. That would not bode well for their future market share.

Intellectual property laws increasingly look like the tool of choice for those who wish to fight against free software. The ability to patent file formats, if it stands up, adds greatly to the power of this weapon. This is a worrisome development indeed.

Linux on bleeding-edge hardware. A common criticism aimed at Linux for years has been that it doesn't support newer hardware. In the past, that complaint has often been true. But it is less so all the time. Consider these developments from this week:

  • Quantum has announced the new Ultra ATA/100 IDE interface. This is a new, higher-speed version of this disk interface which is meant to give SCSI a serious challenge in higher-end applications. Thanks to the efforts of Andre Hedrick, Linux already has support for several ATA/100 chipsets. It is thus well ahead of any number of well-known proprietary systems in providing that support.

  • IBM's under-development Power4 processor has been of interest for a while. This thing looks to run with a 2GHz clock, perhaps a 500MHz bus, and will have two processors on the same chip. This week some folks at IBM posted a Power4 boot log showing that Linux already runs on this processor, despite the fact that commercial Power4 systems are not expected to be out there for another year. The port was done with the assistance of Paul Mackerras of Linuxcare. Alas, since this is pre-production hardware, they have blocked out the BogoMips numbers.

Linux is no longer slow to run on new hardware - indeed, it's often the first system available. We are no longer trying to catch up.

Plan 9 has been released under an open source license. Plan 9 is a longstanding project by Rob Pike and others to develop a "beyond Unix" operating system. It is characterized by a simple, clean design, and the extension of the "everything is a file" concept to cover just about everything imaginable. Many have seen it as the "next great thing" from Bell Labs for years, but the system has been slow to develop (the third release has just come out, the second was in 1995) and hard to come by.

Bell Labs clearly hopes that things will change with the announcement that the third Plan 9 release is under an open source license. The license itself is a longish read, but has a clearly GPLish flavor in that it requires that source to modifications be made available. In fact, this license appears to require that source be released even for private modifications that are not redistributed to anybody else.

By releasing Plan 9 under this license, Bell Labs is trying to make a lively open source development community come together around the system. And that is certainly possible - Plan 9 has interested people for a long time. But it is, at this point, a rather late entrant into the open source operating system field. It lacks a number of capabilities and applications - such as a web browser. It remains to be seen whether this system will prove to be interesting and novel enough to attract a sufficient number of developers to assure its success. Bell Labs may have cause to wish it had adopted this license with the 1995 release.

One last look at open source in embedded systems. We editorialized last week on the need for embedded systems to be open source. We'll add one bit this week, because we can't resist. Consider the embedded system discussed in this RISKS posting. Essentially, the OnStar system allows automobiles to communicate with a central system via cellular telephony. OnStar not only can communicate information about your car, it also includes a control channel back to the car - allowing a remote operator to do things like unlock the doors remotely.

How comfortable do you feel about the security of such a system? From the RISKS posting:

I asked the OnStar speaker what security mechanisms were in place to prevent your car being hacked. He assured me that the mechanisms in place were "very secure". I asked whether he could describe them, but he could not because they were also "very proprietary".
In other words, nobody will ever know how secure the system is until it gets cracked. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to look at the code before trusting your car to this sort of system?

Of course, then there is the issue of sharing the road with people who have been hacking on their cars' software...

The Microsoft judgement is in. It offers no real surprises, stating that Microsoft is to be split into two companies. One company would concern itself with operating systems, the other with applications. Those who are interested can read the full text of the final judgement, but it is more fun to read the memorandum that accompanies it:

Microsoft has proved untrustworthy in the past. In earlier proceedings in which a preliminary injunction was entered, Microsoft's purported compliance with that injunction while it was on appeal was illusory and its explanation disingenuous.

Of course, it will still be a long time before anything really happens; this case is just moving on to its next phase (appeals).

For early responses from the Linux business community, one can look at this press release from LinuxMall.com ("Without the support from Microsoft's other product lines, Windows will have to prove that it is as reliable and stable as Linux. In the long run, I believe computer professionals will choose Linux."), or this Reuters article with a quote from Ransom Love ("It will create tremendous innovation, in all alternatives, and open source and Linux in particular").

Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:

  • Security: Linux 2.2.16 security release.
  • Kernel: ReiserFS in 2.4? The 2.5 wishlist started.
  • Distributions: Bundling Linux ... with what??
  • Development: Java and other development tools in the spotlight.
  • Commerce: JavaOne and Collab.Net, More Open Source News, People with New Jobs
  • Back page: Linux links, this week in Linux history, and letters to the editor
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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June 8, 2000


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