Dispatches from the Open-Source Front

The last few weeks have been pretty busy for open-source watchers, including announcements by Red Hat and Sun Microsystems, and speculation about Microsoft's and Apple's entry into this marketplace. Red Hat’s success with Linux distribution has made quite a splash. The stock, which had an initial public offering (IPO) in mid-August of $16, is still trading in the mid-$80s today. Red Hat just announced that it will create a portal for Linux development that will be a major part of its business. Red Hat just released version 6.1 of its distribution. Last week, the second of the Linux commercial OS distribution houses, VA Linux Systems, announced that it had filed for IPO under the stock-market acronym of LNUX. Sun has announced that it will begin to make its UNIX-based Solaris OS available for public download and modification. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) broke the story at the end of September. According to WSJ, Sun is trying to imitate the success of Linux. Some news publications are calling this event the open sourcing of Solaris. However, if you examine the details of the Sun Community Source License (SCSL), you'll notice that it contains some interesting elements. Although Sun is pursuing a Linux-type business model, Sun’s community-source model differs from the more radical open-source model in several significant respects. Under the open-source model, anybody can download and modify the source code. As a result, you can incorporate the source code into any product. It is, for all intents and purposes, free to the public for any use. The open-source ethic encourages users who make any improvements to the source code to make those improvements available to the larger community. Sun’s community-source model is a hybrid of traditional, propriety code ownership and open-source distribution. Although Sun makes source code available for free download, you can't incorporate the source code into commercial products without Sun’s permission. In Sun’s words, community-source licensing creates a special hierarchy. At the top is the central company that distributes the source code, a developing organization, which in this case is Sun. The other component of the hierarchy is a cloud of companies and users who download and modify the source code, known as the community of participants. Although the community of participants can use programs built on the source code for free, Sun must be part of the deal when anybody in the community wants to distribute such software outside the community. The SCSL lets community participants retain intellectual property rights. While programming interfaces must remain open, any other work that a community participant performs on the source code is proprietary to that particular community participant. You can find Sun’s SCSL presentation online, but the Solaris source code was not available at the time of this article. In other news from the open-source front, Microsoft reportedly is considering open sourcing Windows CE. Last month, Microsoft reportedly killed this possibility, but industry insiders claim that the open-source possibility is back on the table. Rumors about Microsoft using an open-source model for some of its software have been persistent in the trade press, indicating that the idea might be under serious discussion at the top levels of management. Apple is also rumored to be considering open sourcing part of its OS, but neither Microsoft's or Apple's plans in this area have resulted in any announcements. Open-source development provides some compelling benefits. Generally, development moves faster and there is more experimentation with open-source software. Also, this model often creates a loyal developer and user base. The keeper of the code can also benefit by adopting the technology that appears to offer the most potential. Although Linux is clearly a hit with this model, open-source efforts by commercial players such as Netscape’s Mozilla Seamonkey project, which hopes to deliver a next-generation Web browser, have been plagued by slow development and bloated code. It remains to be seen whether players such as Sun, Microsoft, and Apple can use this development model to their advantage.

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