Ximian changes open-source license

The Linux company makes a philosophical shift in a key open-source software project that now will be governed by a less restrictive license.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Ximian, a company working to improve the Linux operating system for ordinary computer users, has made a philosophical shift in a key new open-source software project that now will be governed by a less-restrictive license.

Ximian is changing the license for a key part of Mono, a project designed to duplicate Microsoft's .Net software. Mono had been covered by the General Public License (GPL), the same license that governs Linux, but a newer version of reusable software modules called "classes" stored in "class libraries" will be changed to a license that permits the software to be used in closed-source projects.

The change was made to accommodate Intel, which wanted to contribute to class library work but chafed at the GPL's requirement that software remain open-source only, said Ximian co-founder Miguel de Icaza. That provision of the GPL helps ensure that the work of open-source programmers--often volunteers--isn't appropriated for others' gain. Companies that want to adopt the software don't always want to reveal all their software secrets.

"We're partnering with Intel and Hewlett-Packard to develop those pieces. One of the concessions we had to make was to switch from one open-source license to another," de Icaza said.

Intel has a .Net research lab, but part of its requirement is that software produced may be used in proprietary projects as well as open-source projects, de Icaza said.

Open-source software has been a rallying cry for programmers who wished to undermine Microsoft's power, but with the tightened economy the near-religious fervor for the open-source movement has given way to a more pragmatic view among businesses.

With the assistance of Intel and HP, Mono should make better progress on some of the comparatively tedious work of creating the required 3,500 programming modules known as "classes," collectively stored in the Mono class library. These classes are reusable components that handle tasks as basic as defining an integer or drawing a scroll bar or as complex as decoding XML commands.

Mono currently is working on 900 of those classes, but many more remain and some of the work is only in its infancy, de Icaza said.

The new license for the Mono class libraries is a close variant of the license that covers the XFree86 software used for displaying graphics on Linux and other computers.

Microsoft has issued legal warnings about the GPL but is more favorably disposed toward the XFree86-style licenses, collectively referred to as BSD-type license.

Among programmers writing the class library, about 80 percent said they liked the new license better. However, this opinion wasn't shared by Richard Stallman, a founding father of what has become the open-source movement and the creator and tireless advocate of the GPL.

"He doesn't like the license switch," de Icaza said. "It allows proprietary companies to benefit from the software."

De Icaza hopes to have the first beta of Mono out in August and version 1.0 out by the end of the year.

Mono and .Net are geared to let companies assemble sophisticated services such as travel agents out of different Web sites--"Web services," in current lingo. Several Web services could be assembled on the fly, for example, to book an airplane flight, bill a credit card and call up a rental car promotional offer.

Mono would allow Linux and Unix systems to host Web services and to tap into Web services on other servers.

Mono is designed, among other things, to reproduce on Linux and Unix the ability to execute programs written in Microsoft's C# language that's a foundation for .Net. C# is similar to Sun Microsystems' Java, which lets programs run on a variety of computer systems without having to be changed for each one. But where Java programs run inside a "Java virtual machine," C# programs run inside what Microsoft calls a Common Runtime Infrastructure.

About 50 people are working on Mono, five of them full-time Ximian employees, de Icaza said.