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Leading items and editorials

Linux in the schools. Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik lectured LinuxWorld attendees on the importance of getting Linux into the public schools. One might argue that his position is a little self-interested, but, in truth, he has a point. The Linux community should be working at getting free software into schools worldwide. The effort will benefit both our children and free software.

One can come up with a number of reasons why the schools should be running free software. Often it is simply the best alternative available. Schools do not need to hassle with daily crashes and ongoing security problems. What they need is stable software that runs on modest, perhaps ancient hardware and provides the capabilities that students need. For much of what's done in schools now, Linux is more than adequate.

The financial justification for scholastic Linux requires little argument. Public schools seem to operate with a chronic cash shortage; it makes little sense for them to pour large amounts of money into proprietary software licenses. Schools also should not have to deal with Microsoft software audits and other such indignities; they should be putting their efforts into teaching our children.

But the real reason to put free software into the schools is to teach our children about software freedom and taking control of our computers. Children who have seen how free software works are likely to remain interested in using it later in their lives. After all, going back to proprietary software after using the free variety is usually not very much fun. Going back to licensing hassles, corporate release schedules, and black box software after experiencing free redistribution, collaborative development, and total control can be intolerable. Children who experience free software in the schools will turn into some of its strongest advocates later in their lives.

Besides, some of those school kids will probably send in some great patches.

Of course, there are some obstacles to massive deployments of Linux in the schools. Many schools have already built infrastructures around proprietary software; school networks are often run by fairly conservative people who are not inclined to tear things out and start over again. Convincing them to give Linux a try could be hard.

Then, there is the lack of high-quality educational software. There is a whole class of software for tutoring, drilling, and entertainment of students that is simply not available for Linux. Until more software is either written or ported, Linux systems will be unable to perform a number of tasks in the classroom environment.

One thing that would help in the solution of both problems would be a higher level of hacker interest in school deployments. The number of educational projects is low; KDE has a short educational software listing; GNOME has no educational category at all. Neither desktop project appears to have an organized educational effort. A look at SourceForge's educational category turns up a more encouraging 581 projects, but only 66 are listed as being production-ready. Clearly there's some hacking to be done still.

Free software advocates also have not, as a whole, made school deployments a priority. It will be interesting to see how that changes as more free software developers get older and start having children. Having your children complain that they cannot produce a Word-compatible report tends to get your attention. Children are the future, and they will have a large effect on the future of free software as well. The sooner the two are brought together, the better it will be.

(See also: the SEUL/edu page for a comprehensive listing of educational software, regular reports, and more. Update: Thanks to Bill Soudan for pointing out the KDE Edutainment Project and the kde-edu mailing list, of which we had been unaware.)

More hard times. In case anybody still needed a confirmation that we are in a different and difficult economic climate, consider the following developments:

  • CNet has shut down the AppWatch site, which it acquired last year. AppWatch was a free software directory, along the lines of Freshmeat, but focusing exclusively on free software. It was a popular site, but that wasn't enough; CNet, citing the current economic climate, has pulled the plug.

  • According to this report in Network World Fusion, IBM and others have put $45 million into SuSE, which was, apparently, on the edge of bankruptcy. There's very little information available on this investment at this time. Combined with Dirk Hohndel's departure, this investment does indeed make it look like SuSE was in some serious trouble and is contemplating a change in direction.

  • Progeny Linux Systems has stated publicly that its Network of Workstations (NOW) project is no longer under development, and hasn't been since February.

    Shortly after we started the company, though, the financial markets took a turn for the worse. Like many other young companies, the market correction forced us to take a nearer-term view of things. Because of its long-term horizon, the NOW development efforts often took a back seat to the needs of other projects.

    Until such a time as it is once again possible to raise money for projects like NOW, Progeny is going to have to concentrate on projects that are more lucrative in the near term.

Seen together, that's a disturbing pile of bad news. The shutdown of AppWatch suggests that there is not room for more than one large free software directory on the net. After all, one presumes that CNet knows how to keep a web site going. The SuSE bailout says something similar: might there truly be room for only one large Linux distributor? In some ways, the shutdown of the NOW project is the scariest of all. If the Linux community is unable to fund and sustain long-term development projects, where will it be in a few years?

Of course, that view is overly pessimistic on all counts. We are in the middle of an increasingly severe economic downturn; of course there will be consequences for Linux businesses just as there is with all other computing sectors. The easy money boom period of the last 1990's made the problem worse by funding businesses that never had a serious chance at success before their bubbles burst. Still, it is a difficult today even for well-run companies with solid business plans to find profitability.

This, too, shall pass. When it is over, Linux will still be there, getting stronger, and attracting more users. That much is easy to predict. The success of Linux says little for the prospects of any individual Linux company, however. The Linux business community will certainly see more changes before things pick up again, and they will not all be pleasant.

GFS is no longer free software. The Global Filesystem (GFS) is a clustered filesystem developed by Sistina. It is meant for the implementation of high-performance, high-availability filesystems on "storage area networks." It has long been available under the GPL, and was considered as a candidate for inclusion into the Linux kernel if and when the 2.5 series comes into existence.

That was until version 4.2 came out under the new "Sistina Public License." This license looks somewhat like a free software license, in that source is available. The similarity ends there, however. Redistribution requires that a license fee be paid to Sistina; one must also pay if GFS is used to offer a commercial service, even if the software is not redistributed. The SPL is certainly not a free software license. It has more of a "shared source" smell to it.

One can certainly argue that Sistina, as the copyright holder, has the right to change the licensing on its code. It is yet another business that is trying to find a way to make money, after all. One would think that only those who think that proprietary software should be illegal would complain about this license change.

It is not quite that simple, though. GFS, after all, must be linked into the Linux kernel to be useful. And linking GFS is not just a matter of inserting a binary module; it requires some extensive patches to the kernel source itself. By reaching past the module interface, GFS exceeds the GPL exemption granted by Linus to binary modules. With the 4.2 release, Sistina has separated the kernel patches into a separate, GPL-licensed file, but that is unlikely to satisfy many people.

There is already a challenge out there: Alan Cox believes that GFS violates his copyright, and has sent Sistina a letter to that effect.

If they were simply doing a non-free release that used existing kernel API's I'd be annoyed but not bothered, as it is they seem to be doing dirtier things and more blatantly than any company before. I'm hoping they will resolve this sensibly, we shall see.

For now I think the best approach is to be quiet and reasonable. They've done something that seems wrong and silly, they should have a few days to resolve it.

A few days have passed, but Sistina shows no signs of budging.

Meanwhile, the OpenGFS project has started up, using the last GPL release of GFS as a starting point. Sistina may well find itself in a position similar to that of SSH Communications Security - a free version of an early release could overtake its more recent, proprietary products.

See also: the Sistina Public License FAQ.

Dmitry Sklyarov update. The Sklyarov story is moving into a slower mode as the U.S. Justice system grinds along. A few developments:

  • As expected, Dmitry and Elcomsoft pleaded 'not guilty' at the arraignment on August 30.

  • Dmitry's family has come to the U.S., and will stay through much of September.

  • Adobe has published a new FAQ on the Sklyarov situation. It has, one might say, failed to mollify those who see Adobe as being at least partially responsible for Dmitry's arrest.

  • The U.S. Copyright Office came out with its required study of the effects of the DMCA; it concluded that, with regard to the anti-circumvention provision, "the actual impact on consumers appears to be minimal." The full report is very long; see this Salon article for a more manageable read.

  • OpenBSD and OpenSSH hacker Dug Song has pulled his web site, citing a fear of the DMCA.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: Apache SQL authentication vulnerabilities; the X.C worm.
  • Kernel: MODULE_LICENSE, block ioctl numbers, page aging doesn't work?
  • Distributions: Embedded distributions: Hard Hat Linux, BlueCat Linux, and REDICE-Linux.
  • On the Desktop: Hancom merges with theKompany, KDE Best of Show and KMail "B2K"?
  • Development: Red Hat's embedded Linux and Mozilla minus Netscape.
  • Commerce: HP to buy Compaq; Books, Books, Books!
  • History: American Concrete Cutting Corporation; Oracle announced its first set of marketing partnerships; Trolltech releases Qt 2.2 under GPL.
  • Letters: VA Linux and SourceForge; fighting the DMCA.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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September 6, 2001


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