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Leading items and editorials

A new proposed Microsoft remedy. Unhappy with the Department of Justice's remedy, nine holdout states have put forward a proposal of their own in the Microsoft case. The full proposal is available to those who are interested in PDF format. Here we'll look at a few aspects of this proposal that are of interest to the free software community.

One, of course, is the requirement that Internet Explorer (actually, "all browser products and browser functionality") be released under an open source license. The license to be used is not specified, but it includes "a royalty-free, non-exclusive perpetual right on a non-discriminatory basis to make, use, modify, and distribute without limitation products implementing or derived from Microsoft's source code." In other words, it looks like something BSDish.

Is this helpful? One can imagine a belated release of code, missing many important parts which, while necessary to build IE, are not, according to Microsoft, "browser functionality." An open source IE could help to create some browser diversity on the Windows platform. It's not clear how much it would help on free systems, where numerous free, capable browsers are finally becoming available.

More to the point, perhaps, it is hard to see how an open source Internet Explorer will help mitigate Microsoft's monopoly power in the future.

The proposal requires Microsoft to distribute Java for the next ten years. This seems pointless. No doubt enough little glitches could be caused to remain in the Java virtual machine that the "debug everywhere" nature of the language would persist. Do we really want the government to start regulating which languages should be present on our systems?

Then there's the porting of Office. The proposal requires Microsoft to auction licenses for ports of Office to three other operating systems. It's worth noting that nothing says which systems are to receive ports; it would appear that Microsoft could offer licenses for ports to, say, CP/M, Plan 9, and VxWorks. Nothing in the proposal requires a port to Linux.

How useful would such a port be, if it were to happen? The availability of Office might help drive a few corporate desktop deployments. But, then, if people really want to run Office, there is probably little reason for them not to run it on Windows. If the port included a separate library for the reading and writing of Office file formats, other Linux applications could have an easier time with proprietary files. Except, of course, those licensed under the GPL, which could not be linked with that sort of closed source library.

Section 4 of the proposal requires "disclosure of APIs, communications interfaces, and technical information." This seems like a good idea: much effort in the free software community goes into reverse engineering of Microsoft's protocols and formats. The proposal does not require disclosure to the free software community, however, or to the public as a whole. Disclosure is limited to "ISVs, IHV, IAPs, ICP, OEMs and third-party licensees." This information would remain proprietary, only with a larger group of companies allowed access. It's not at all clear that the information so disclosed could be incorporated into free software products.

In summary: this proposal is stronger than the remedies put forward by the Department of Justice, but it still does little for the free software community. Free software developers are not given the sort of access to information that is mandated for proprietary vendors. And, of course, this proposal does little to prevent a future Microsoft monopoly based on .NET and HailStorm.

The best course of action remains as before: create the best software we can and let it speak for itself. Free software continues to make great strides, even in the current economic climate. Rather than counting on the government to hobble the strongest proprietary competition, let's work on keeping free software strong and making that competition obsolete.

(See also: Robert X. Cringely's take on the proposal, which includes information on how to submit comments, and Dan Kegel's proposed modifications to the proposal).

Worth a look: OpenOffice. The OpenOffice project seems to be keeping a deliberately low profile. OpenOffice developers, perhaps, are fearful of the criticism that Mozilla has taken over the years; they, too, have taken on a hefty chunk of newly freed corporate code, and are working to turn it into a proper free application. Rather than risk disappointing the community, OpenOffice is keeping relatively quiet about what it is up to. No press releases, no weekly summaries.

Then again, maybe they just do not want to draw attention away from the upcoming StarOffice 6.0 commercial release.

It is, however, time that the world began to notice OpenOffice. The project has, quietly, produced a capable and fully functional office productivity suite. Recent builds of OpenOffice are very similar to the StarOffice 6.0 beta recently released by Sun (and reviewed by LWN), but without the weird licensing. All the important features are there.

Not long ago, there was no free office suite for Linux, and the proprietary ones left users disappointed as well. Now we are blessed with a number of free alternatives. An MS Office power user would likely find reasons to complain about all of them, but most others should find all the capabilities they need. The widespread deployment of Linux on desktops may be closer than we think.

What the insiders are up to. One fun bit of information available on the Yahoo site is data on insider stock trades. This trading information can give an insight into what people are up to. Here's a couple of examples:

  • When the company now known as Caldera International and the company now known as Lineo split apart, each maintained a substantial holding in the other. A look at the insider trading data for Caldera shows that Lineo has been selling off its holdings - over 1 million shares for almost $1.3 million since the beginning of the year. Caldera's stock fell to a low of $0.22 while this was happening. One could say that Lineo is showing a lack of faith in its sister company's future, but the truth is probably more straightforward: Lineo has been financing its operation by selling its Caldera stock.

  • A pattern stands out immediately in Red Hat's data: co-founder Bob Young has been selling roughly 10,000 shares daily since the middle of July. Proceeds will be in the millions of dollars. Either Bob is looking to buy a house in co-founder Marc Ewing's neighborhood, or he has some other scheme in the works...
Holders of stock in VA Software, instead, are standing pat; there are very few insider trades on record.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: Governments choose Linux, security reports & updates, AES standard published.
  • Kernel: Memory pools; bigger device numbers; dueling schedulers.
  • Distributions: Got KRUD?; Installing Debian Linux on a Dell Laptop.
  • Development: Bochs x86 emulator, Quanta 2.0, OpenCV 2.1, Crystal Space 0.92, Open CASCADE 4.0, Guikachu 1.0.0, Osimpa macro assembler, PHP 4.1.0, Ruby/FLTK 0.5.0.
  • Commerce: Caldera and VA financials, Red Hat's Szulik to testify before senate, VA name change, Covalent Apache 2.0 Zone.
  • History: Debian 1.0, 1.1, and 1.2; 2.4 is imminent; VA Linux goes public.
  • Letters: MS Remedies; Mutt and Evolution; SourceForge.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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December 13, 2001


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