"Open source" infighting grows

The programming movement is experiencing growing pains as two major figures part ways this week.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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5 min read
The "open source" programming movement is experiencing growing pains.

Two major figures backing the open source programming model parted ways this week as programmer Bruce Perens resigned from the board of the Open Source Initiative, a group established by Perens and open source evangelist Eric Raymond.

In open source development, any programmer can get access to the "source code"--the original programming instructions of a piece of software. With more traditional proprietary methods, a company keeps the original source code under tight wraps.

The open source movement provided much of the muscle behind the Linux operating system, which has been gaining much momentum of late, but the collective programming model is much broader. Other open source projects include the Perl scripting language in widespread use to create customized Web pages, the Apache Web page server, and the Sendmail email software.

As open source has grown in prominence and power, big-name computer companies have recognized it. IBM, for example, distributes and supports the Apache Web server. Sun Microsystems opened up its Java "write once, run anywhere" source code in a step that brings its software closer to the open source model.

Microsoft employees noted the power of open source software compared to Microsoft's methods in the Halloween memos. And Netscape decided to release the source code of its Web browser.

But with this growth has come philosophical differences.

The technology discussion site Slashdot reported the schism between Raymond and Perens yesterday, and hundreds posted their own, often adamant opinions on the subject.

Both Perens and Raymond have strong credentials in the open source arena; Perens is the primary author of the Open Source Definition and wrote parts of the Debian distribution of Linux. Raymond was the programmer behind much of the Fetchmail software and is the author of the influential paper "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," contrasting open source with proprietary development.

But the two now are at odds as an old debate resurfaced.

"One of the unfortunate things about open source is that it overshadowed the Free Software Foundation's efforts," Perens wrote this week. "The Open Source Definition is entirely compatible with the Free Software Foundation's goals, and a schism between the two groups should never have been allowed to develop. I objected to that schism, but was not able to get the two parties together."

In response, Raymond told Slashdot that Perens resigned from the Open Source Initiative after a "dustup" in which Perens described Tim O'Reilly (an open source advocate and the head of book publisher O'Reilly and Associates) as "one of the leading parasites [sic] of the free software community."

"Though no formal motion has yet been passed, it seems likely that OSI will shortly replace Bruce and add two more directors in an effort to broaden its base of representation in the open-source community," Raymond said.

Despite these philosophical debates, the open source effort moves on. "I'm an open-source developer. Yet, I couldn't care less if Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond disagree over wording of a license," one developer told CNET News.com. "I think it's important to keep in mind that these people do not represent the free/open source software community at all. They try to do their part, but their part hasn't lately included writing code, and that is what it's all about."

The ups and downs of open source
Netscape surprised the programming world when it set up Mozilla to shepherd the open source development of its Web browser in 1998.

But the company acknowledges the risks of that move. In its February 18 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company describes a long series of potential pitfalls of trying to harness the open source effort.

Among the risks: few developers may contribute; what they contribute may not be changes in the right direction; competitors may try to incorporate new Netscape features; and new code may infringe on the proprietary rights of third parties.

In addition, "the free source code may lead to a proliferation of incompatible or competitive products, potentially creating brand and market confusion," Netscape said.

That problem is known as "code forking," in which programmers take a piece of software down two or more different paths. Without efforts to bring the changes back under one roof, software can split into different and incompatible versions.

Last year, the Linux Standards Association set up shop on the Web, calling for standards for the operating system so business users wouldn't have to worry about incompatibilities between different flavors of Linux.

The association, led by Linux Online's Michael McLagan, disappeared from the Web in October 1998. The Linux Standards Base, however, which predated the Linux Standards Association, still exists.

Despite these pitfalls, some appreciate the benefits of open source.

Microsoft engineer Vinod Valloppillil said in no uncertain terms that open source programming poses a threat to the proprietary realm of Microsoft. "Open source software poses a direct, short-term revenue and platform threat to Microsoft--particularly in server space. Additionally, the intrinsic parallelism and free idea exchange in open source software has benefits that are not replicable with our current licensing model and therefore present a long term developer mindshare threat," Valloppillil said in the confidential--but leaked--Halloween memo.

Sun Microsystems, with its new Community Source License, has attempted to embrace the benefits of the open source movement without losing control or giving up its intellectual property. The new licensing deal applies to Java and Jini right now and will apply to EmbeddedJava and PersonalJava in the future.

"This hybrid that takes the best of the open source model, creating a community of developers working together to evolve a technology base, and combines it with the best of the Java licensing model, which has been all about preserving compatibility," Sun spokeswoman Elizabeth McNichols said. "We believe that as a result of this we are going to see implementations of the Java platform that are well-suited to a far broader range of devices and appropriate for a far broader range of industry environments than has been the case to date."

Sun made the source code for Java 2 available on the Web this week.

Sun, for its part, emphasizes that licensing Java is easy. "All you have to is go to our Web site, point-and-click at a simple license, and instantly you are a licensee and you can download the source code to the Java platform free of charge," McNichols said.

As with Linux, developers are free to see and modify Sun's Java software. However, unlike with Linux, developers aren't free to distribute their changes.