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Panel: Shared work, not suits, key to open source

A Comdex panel proposes that the main innovation of the open-source movement isn't the creation of licensing models but the collaboration between developers.

LAS VEGAS--Open-source software is about more than free code and occasionally troublesome licensing models.

That was the message from the main open-source discussion at the Comdex trade show Thursday, where panelists focused on the value of collaboration and tried--almost successfully--to ignore distractions like the SCO legal battle.

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"We spend a lot of time thinking this is all about licensing," said moderator Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Publishing, a leading publisher of programming guides and other technical books. However, the community's achievements don't always have a licensing element. "The open-source developer has been ahead of the curve in figuring out how to do remote collaboration," he said. That's very powerful, and it doesn't depend on the license."

Marten Mickos, CEO of open-source database company MySQL, said the open-source movement has shown that individual developers working together can be more effective than big, corporate project teams.

"We very much think that innovation does not come from a big (research and development) budget," he said. "Open-source development is showing us the real power of innovation is in collaboration."

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Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web server project and chief technical officer of open-source development service CollabNet, said the open-source model has helped give developers the freedom to follow their instincts. "When open-source projects want to solve a problem, they're not thinking about shipping something by the release date," he said. "They're thinking about doing something cool...There's just more room to do something creative."

Even Microsoft sees some benefit in sharing code to encourage collaboration among developers, declared Jason Matusow, manager of Microsoft's "shared source" projects. He said such efforts to selectively open up parts of the Windows source code have benefited customers and Microsoft.

"We've seen that transparency does increase trust," he said. "I don't think that makes us an open-source company...But it shows all of us are learning from open source."

The value of collaboration goes beyond hashing out code, added Allan Vermuelen, chief technical officer of Amazon.com. He said that while the online retailer has benefited from shifting most of its major systems to Linux, it's also benefited from having customers add value to the site through reviews, lists and other contributions. "Amazon.com is really an application where a lot of people collaborate to make it better," he said.

The SCO case was raised toward the end of the discussion. While O'Reilly and other panelists scoffed at SCO's claims, Matusow said they should at least have developers thinking about intellectual property (IP) issues.

"The existing software industry for the past 25 years has relied primarily on trade secrets," he said. "If you go down a path where you say transparency is critical, then you have to strengthen the other pillars of IP law."