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Leading items and editorials

What is open source? There have been a few amusing attempts to characterize the open source world this week; here's a summary.

Is open source:

  • Communist? Steve Ballmer, President and CEO of Microsoft, thinks so, according to comments reprinted in this article in The Register. "And it had, you know, the characteristics of communism that people love so very, very much about it. That is, it's free."

    The "communist" label comes out every now and then. Even this many years after the end of the cold war, the term has great power in the U.S. One could almost even make a corollary to Godwin's Law: when somebody calls somebody else a communist, it means they have run out of real things to say and the conversation is over.

    In any case, one wouldn't think that a communist phenomenon would be so thick with libertarians and venture capitalists. Free software is a capitalist phenomenon: free agents are contributing to a public good because it is in their own selfish interest to do so. Use of words like "communist" show either a lack of understanding of free software or a great fear of it - or both.

  • Unoriginal? Michael Swaine, generally a supporter of free software, questioned its originality in this Web Review article. "Free Software/Open Source is, judging by the projects so far, chiefly about liberating existing software rather than creating something startlingly new."

    This charge, too, is not new. It is true that much of what's going on in the free software world is an attempt to create free versions of the best of what's already out there. That is, after all, the code that people want now. It seems silly to criticize people for providing it.

    But consider also: the TCP/IP protocols, the domain name system, the world wide web (built with open-source browsers and servers until Netscape took them proprietary), the web's predecessors (gopher, WAIS), anonymous FTP, USENET, virtual desktops, ReiserFS, EROS, Tcl/Tk, Perl, Python, SourceForge, and many more. The truly original open source code tends to be invisible because either (1) it's a fundamental part of the infrastructure we all use, or (2) it's so original that it remains obscure - for now.

  • The death of the software industry? Dave Winer took an opportunity to dig into open source as part of a column on the Napster issue. "Believe it or not, I'd like to thank the music industry for bringing money into the discussion again. Open source hype destroyed the economy of software. Now perhaps we can rebuild it, based on reality.... The software industry has already been decimated by the culture of piracy, both in ideas and implementations, through patents, open source and the Internet bubble."

    It would be curious to see just what parts of the software industry have been "decimated" by open source. Free alternatives can indeed create trouble for proprietary software vendors - back in the late 1980's, there were several companies selling emacs, for example. One could also blame SCO's current troubles on Linux. (For more on SCO, Caldera, and Linux, see this week's Commerce page).

    But the software industry is also highly dynamic, and few companies stay on top for long. SCO might have been just as easily toppled by Windows 2000. Free software has not, certainly, created this situation. The software industry is changing in response to free software, just as it has changed in response to many other factors. It remains vibrant and competitive, and that is unlikely to change.

The free software world is far from perfect, but criticism like that shown above misses the point. Expect to see more of it in the future, though.

Eric S. Raymond's latest missive is entitled Two faces and Big Lies; it's about DeCSS, Napster, and related issues. Eric rips into just about everybody with this one, from the DVD Copy Control Association through to people ripping off copyrighted music through Napster.

It's worth reading. The free software community needs to come to a consistent ethical position on these things. As Eric says:

We have a special responsibility because we are the king toolmakers of the digital age; our work and our values will have a large part in shaping the future of communications and media everywhere. We have a special need because the way these intellectual-property issues work out will come back to haunt us more than most if we get then wrong.

One thing that's worth adding to this discussion: remember that the free software world, too, is dependent on copyrights. Licenses like the GPL depend on copyright law. The free software world has a lot to contribute to the discussion on just how far copyright protections should apply, but if we promote the ignoring of copyright altogether, we are polluting our own well.

The Linux Development Platform Specification version 1.0-beta was released by the Free Standards Project on July 22. LWN mentioned the release in the daily updates page, but an editorial slip caused it to be dropped from the July 27 weekly edition. We regret the error.

The LDPS is interesting. It's essentially a stopgap specification designed to help in the creation of programs that are portable between Linux distributions; eventually it should be incorporated within the full Linux Standard Base. The LSB has proved to be long in coming; meanwhile the LDPS can be used, by developers and distributors both, to avoid the worst portability problems

The LDPS developers are looking for feedback! If you have suggestions for improvements, they should go back to the Free Standards project by August 7. Please have a look at the "comment instructions" on the LDPS 1.0-beta page; they are asking that comments use a specific format.

The LDPS text itself makes interesting reading. It is short and to the point, and it highlights just what the portability problems between Linux distributions really are. Some of these include:

  • Different versions of the C libraries. The worst of the glibc portability problems are hopefully behind us, but the LDPS recommends sticking with glibc-2.1.2 or 2.1.3 only.

  • Dynamic C++ libraries. The LDPS recommends that, in general, dynamic linking with libraries should be used. C++, however, brings in a number of interesting linking and runtime issues; to avoid difficulties, the LDPS recommends static linking be used with C++ libraries.

  • The ncurses library is singled out as having an unstable interface and being a source of portability problems.

  • Vendor-supplied patches to the kernel - usually backports of 2.4 features into the 2.2 kernel. These patches include raw I/O, the new RAID system, PCMCIA (normally maintained separately from the 2.2 kernel), and many others.

There is more to the list than what we have listed above, of course. There are two patterns that emerge from this list: interfaces that change, and vendor additions. As Linux has matured, the magnitude of both of these problems has been reduced, but it's far from clear that they will ever go away. Interfaces change because people find better ways of doing things. There is value in keeping backward compatibility, but there is also a point where the whole system gets weighed down by compatibility code. Sometimes you simply have to move forward. The willingness to occasionally break old interfaces is what will keep Linux alive for many years to come.

And, of course, the open source nature of the system means that distributors will always be able to tweak the code to meet their customers' needs. The best of these changes usually make it into the code base and become standard features. But there will always be good reasons to add nonstandard stuff.

Thus, for all the talk of incompatibility and fragmentation between distributions, we see from the LDPS that the list of real portability problems is small, and that the problems that do exist reflect the strengths of the Linux platform.

CopyLeft was added as a defendant in the DVD case this week. The [T-shirt] DVDCCA pigeonholed them into one of the "John Doe" slots on the suit after apparently figuring out that CopyLeft is selling T-shirts with the DeCSS code on the back. This move will, of course, bring the "free speech" aspect of the case into an even more prominent position.

The one immediate result, however, seems to be that CopyLeft is selling far more shirts. Since each shirt sold generates $4 for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the DVDCCA may end up doing a favor for the defense.

Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:

  • Security: OpenBSD fuzz, CVS insecurities, forensics tools.
  • Kernel: A major VM rewrite in 2.5; changes to mount(2), getting configuration information from the kernel.
  • Distributions: European Linux distribution numbers, Corel Linux Second edition coming soon, Red Hat "Pinstripe".
  • Development: The OpenTcl movement, Python licensing issues, Linux printing advances.
  • Commerce: Caldera buys parts of SCO, Linux on S/390, More Red Hat News.
  • Back page: Linux links, this week in Linux history, and letters to the editor
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

This Week's LWN was brought to you by:

August 3, 2000


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