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Open-source Mambo project faces rift

Struggle over who steers development of the content management software underlines the promise and the pitfalls of collaborative work.

Backers of Mambo, a content management system used to publish Web sites, are deeply divided over how to govern the open-source project--a split that could send the software's development in two separate directions.

On one side of the clash is Miro International and the Mambo Foundation. Miro is the company that originally released Mambo as open-source software, and it helped establish the foundation earlier this month to govern the software as an open-source project.

On the other side is the entire team of Mambo developers.


What's new:
Developers are breaking ranks with the foundation that oversees Mambo, meaning that development of the content management software might fork into two separate directions.

Bottom line:
The struggle over who steers development of the open-source software underlines the promise and the pitfalls of collaborative work.

More stories on open-source development

The parties are wrestling over who should control the direction of Mambo's evolution. It's not clear what the point of disagreement is, and the developers declined to give details to CNET But from their public statements, it appears their general claim is that the Mambo Foundation amounts to a power grab and shuts them out.

"We believe the future of Mambo should be controlled by the demands of its users and the abilities of its developers," reads a statement by OpenSourceMatters, a group formed around the issue by about 20 key Mambo developers. "The Mambo Foundation is designed to grant that control to Miro, a design that makes cooperation between the foundation and the community impossible...We, the community, have no voice in (the foundation's) government or the future direction of Mambo."

Both sides have pledged to continue development of the Mambo software, meaning that the project might well split--or "fork"--into two different versions. The developer group insists Mambo development will be unchanged--except that it will have a different name. On the other side, the foundation says it's a good time to assemble a fresh team of contributors.

The possible fork shows both the promise and pitfalls of open-source software. On the one hand, disgruntled engineers have the freedom to do what they believe is right despite disagreements with corporate sponsors or other programmers. On the other, such splits can dilute the efforts of programmers and force software users to grapple with incompatible products.

"If people don't agree with the way a project is going, they have the ability to strike off and produce something on their own. It really is a Darwinian environment, where the best products will succeed," IDC analyst Al Gillen said.

The drawback is that customers might get confused, if they're faced with a range of competing products with similar roots, he said.

For their part, Miro and the foundation claim the power grab is in the other direction. The idea of the foundation began with the developers themselves, but Miro soon concluded that the developers' rationale for it "was to gain control over the intellectual-property license, not protecting the project," foundation board member and Miro general manager Justina Phoon said in an e-mail interview.

The criticism of Miro may have had some effect, though: The company on Monday agreed to release some control over the Mambo intellectual property. Miro founder Peter Lamont reversed his company's earlier position and committed to transferring the Mambo trademark and copyright to the foundation.

Mambo, governed by the General Public License, or GPL, is used to control the content of Web pages. Numerous modules have been added, providing features such as shopping carts, banner advertisements, customized maps and chat forums. Miro, an Australian company that builds Mambo-based Web sites and funds development of the software, released the once-proprietary product as open-source software in 2000.

The developers departed this month, after Miro announced the Mambo Foundation's formation at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo. Miro said Mambo project leader Andrew Eddie, among others, was on the foundation's board.

Fault lines soon appeared in exchanges on Mambo's discussion lists. The biggest blow came Wednesday, when the Mambo development team, including Eddie, who hadn't joined the foundation board after all, broke ranks with Miro and the foundation.

The Miro contingent is choosing to see the glass as half full. Phoon said that a new developer team for Mambo would have advantages.

"Changing development teams is always a setback, not something anyone would typically look forward to," Phoon said. But "we do believe that the setback will become a benefit, as we recruit new blood and build a Mambo team that will focus on the core goals of Mambo, to be a high-quality, easy-to-use content-management system."

The new structure means that members of the community who were unable to be involved before can now join the team, Phoon said, adding that the foundation is actively recruiting development team members as well as organizational and third-party developer members.

And in the first place, Phoon said, the idea of the foundation came from Eddie and fellow Mambo programmer and OpenSourceMatters signatory Brian Teeman. When Miro concluded the developers just wanted control over the license, they chose to go ahead with the

foundation and let programmers decide whether to join. "We felt once the project was adequately protected, we could involve the core team and let them decide if they were truly interested in the Mambo project, or simply controlling the license," Phoon said.

To decide their next step, the developers are working with the Software Freedom Law Center, an organization that employs Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor and legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation. Moglen declined to comment on the situation.

Now each side argues that the other faces the decision to fork away from the core project.

"Whether the OpenSourceMatters team forks the code, or anyone else forks the code will be up to them," Phoon said. "If they are successful in meeting the demands of their users, then another great project is in the market. If they do not, they will be like thousands of other projects that get started and abandoned."

But Emir Sakic, one of the Mambo developers, argues the momentum is behind his group. "All members of the core development team, the translation teams and documentation teams as well as most--if not all-- the third-party developers and major players are on the new site," he said in an e-mail interview. "This is not a question of fork, it is rather continuing the project under another name."

Reconcilable differences
Not all open-source software forks become permanent. One case involves the GNU Compiler Collection, or GCC, the crucial programming tools that are used to produce nearly every open-source software package.

GCC was run by the Free Software Foundation--the group founded by Richard Stallman to create the Gnu's Not Unix (GNU) operating system. But in 1997, a company called Cygnus Solutions that commercialized GCC, along with several allies, wanted to take GCC in new technical directions.

"We were extremely sensitive to the potential negatives of forking GCC," said Cygnus founder and now Red Hat employee Michael Tiemann. "At the same time, Cygnus had reached a point due to our work on GCC that we were beginning to feel hamstrung by the GCC maintainer. We needed to do things in GCC that had never been contemplated when the original GCC was designed."

The Cygnus allies were cautious. They tried not to antagonize the FSF, they established a governing committee to run the project, and they deliberately named it the Experimental GNU Compiler System to avoid the perception they were hijacking GCC itself. By 1999, after the EGCS approach had proved itself, the Free Software Foundation joined forces.

"This fork was more done for technical reasons than for personal or political reasons, and it proved far easier to heal," Tiemann said.

But there are many cases in which forks haven't reunited. The open-source BSD operating system, which stemmed from work on Unix at the University of California, Berkeley, has branched into FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD.

Other cases are up in the air. The Debian version of Linux has become the foundation for several other versions, and many of the allies are now trying to regroup through an effort called the Debian Common Core.

In the case of Mambo, a fork still isn't certain. Miro, for one, is holding out hope.

The core Mambo developers presented their opposition Wednesday "before many of them knew the facts behind the foundation," Phoon said. "Who knows what will happen when they read the actual foundation documents and realize that a lot of the fears they have been talking about were unfounded."