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Al Gore's site a sign of the times

Everyone from Salon.com to Al Gore seems to be trying to get mileage out of the burgeoning open source movement or its shining star, Linux. Is it software liberation or bandwagon jumping in the extreme?

Everyone from Salon.com to Al Gore seems to be trying to get mileage out of the burgeoning open source movement or its shining star, Linux.

Call it a sign of the high-tech times. But how far will it go? It's one thing when computer companies like Apple, Silicon Graphics, or Sun Microsystems try to tap into the energy of a collection of avid, self-motivated programmers. But a presidential candidate declaring his Web site open source?

"Before you know it, Crystal Geyser is going to be open source water," quipped Michael Tiemann, cofounder of Cygnus Solutions, a company that has written much of the open source compilers essential to the Linux operating system.

Under the open source development model, the original programming instructions for a piece of software are made freely available for anyone to modify or use. The model has proven successful in debugging and advancing Linux and software that accompanies the Unix-like operating system. It that realm, programmers often are motivated not by money but by the recognition they get for contributing to the effort.

The result not only has been some critically acclaimed software, but also an increasingly large, free-thinking, beholden-to-no-one, grass-roots community that stays in touch by email and Internet discussion sites like Slashdot. Many in the movement are united by their loathing of Microsoft, a company whose software they deride as well-marketed but not well made.

Salon.com, when announcing its dot-com makeover this week, tried to tap into this Internet counterculture by trumpeting its adoption of Linux and taking the trouble to note that it was dumping Microsoft's Windows NT.

Open source hubbub ratcheted up another level this week with discussion of the possibility of Microsoft opening Windows code to the open source community. The discussion was spurred by remarks by high-ranking Microsoft executives, but the company later clarified, saying that open source to Microsoft means sharing code only with selected developers, not the entire world. (See related story.)

And Gore tried to get political mileage out of the open source movement, breathlessly announcing the "Gore 2000 Volunteer Source Code Project," entreating visitors to "help in shaping its evolution" of the Web site, and promising to "implement the very best ideas."

The site, however, came with some qualifiers in a legal disclaimer that might not sit well with the free-wheeling open source world. For example, only original submissions are permitted, which stands contrary to the standing-on-the-shoulders-of-those-who-came-before-me philosophy of open source programming.

Indeed, numerous Slashdot commentators derided the site. "Apparently, some nitwit party ideology wonk has decided that open source was somehow the same kind of ideological territory, ripe for exploitation," one anonymous writer posted, noting that under strict open source rules, Gore's Web software would have to be shared with the Republicans, Greens, socialists, and any other political party.

Ideological purity
Linux has drawn the attention of the likes of IBM, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Intel, and many other technology titans.

But some companies have attempted a more ambitious strategy, folding open source principles into their own products.

Sun, for example, has made the source code for its Java technology freely available under its Community Source License--but the company still keeps control over Java and charges fees when someone wants to ship a product. Its quasi-open source model has been perceived by some as a strategy to "taint" the pool of developers who want to create their own Java clones without bowing to Sun's licensing and royalty requirements.

Tim Wilkinson of Transvirtual is one such person. He has called upon Sun to "release their intellectual property, which is something you have to do to be true on open source. If Sun, with its Community Source License, maintains its control of Java, then all you're doing is swapping a Windows API for a JavaSoft API, and that doesn't seem like a particularly good deal to me."

Apple also has made its foray by releasing parts of its Mac OS X Server as open source. Though the operating system has its roots in software that's already open source, Apple released some of its own code as well. Still, some clauses in Apple Public Source License prompted some debate.

Mozilla's influence
Open source achieved much of its current celebrity and marketing cachet with the advent of Mozilla.org, the organization set up by Netscape Communications in January of last year to shepherd the open source development of its Communicator Web browsing suite.

Netscape's decision to give away its source code and turn it over to open source development was a virtually unprecedented business decision, hailed for its daring even as it was seen as a sign of desperation as Communicator's market share succumbed to a fierce onslaught by Microsoft and its competing Internet Explorer browser.

More than a year after the Mozilla source code was released, however, the project has fallen far short of the hype that accompanied its launch and much of its first year. Mozilla's troubles were underscored by the first anniversary defection of founding member and evangelist Jamie Zawinski, who spelled out the project's failings in a parting manifesto.

Part of Mozilla's problem has been the result of Netscape's waffling--the project switched from parallel development tracks to a single, next-generation development effort in midstream. As a result, the first 12 months of coding work have failed to produce a working, full-featured browser.

But the larger problem for Mozilla.org is that the world-wide army of developers that was supposed to coalesce to defend Communicator from Microsoft and marketplace irrelevance has not materialized. Instead, the effort remains the work of a few hundred Netscape engineers, with a much smaller band of volunteers chipping in from the Net with bug fixes and some other coding.

There are exceptions: XML innovator James Clark provided Mozilla with its XML parser, for example. But the failure of Mozilla to attract a vast and widespread group of contributors may spell trouble for firms that put all their hope in open source.

Even for a company like Netscape, seen as a Net original and the sympathetic underdog in a battle against the Redmond Goliath, an open source effort has failed to garner significant outside contributions. If developers see an open source effort as a marketing ploy by a Johnny-come-lately, those contributions are sure to be more meager still.

Harnessing open source
Linux distributor Red Hat is one company that has found a balance between exploiting the open source community and encouraging it. The company employs several key Linux developers, including Alan Cox.

But the company's goal isn't to control or direct Linux development, only to accelerate it, said Bob Young, the company's chief executive.

"We had the opportunity to employ a bunch of existing top-tier Linux kernel developers. We needed the kernel to move forward as fast as we possibly could get it to move forward," Young said. "They get to hack Linux and get paid for it," he said.

Hiring Cox, for example, was an easy choice. "It was a no-brainer to us to pay him a full-time salary, so he wouldn't get a 'real job' with some major company and only be working on the Linux kernel evenings and weekends."

However, Red Hat's success has caused some resentment, spurring some Linux fans to start considering Red Hat as the Microsoft of the Linux realm. Young says it ain't so, attributing the opinion to the traditional root-for-the-underdog that pervades the open source community and noting that all software the company writes is released as open source.

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