Getting the most out of open source
Special to CNET News.com
March 13, 2004, 4:00 AM PST
Last year, the SCO Group filed a $3 billion suit against IBM, alleging that the latter's use of the Linux open-source operating system was illegal.
SCO's suit claims ownership of the copyright to Unix, an OS Bell Labs produced in the late 1960s and upon which the popular open-source program Linux is based.As further evidence that open-source software is fast becoming a viable commercial choice, SCO is now for its use of Unix, and AutoZone, an auto parts retailer, for its use of Linux. The company has indicated that it that use open-source software in the future.
IBM, for its part,, alleging that SCO is trying to make money by laying claim to a code freely available to the public. Novell, another company SCO sued last year, is also .
These recent lawsuits are just the latest challenge to widespread use of open-source operating systems. Linux, the best-known system, was developed in the 1990s by. Unlike the source code of the Windows operating system, which is proprietary, the Linux code is available free to anyone. Computer users can simply download Linux off the Web if they feel technically competent enough to try it out. Indeed, the only groups making money off Linux are companies that sell support services for the product.
Given the pros and cons of open-source software, the debate these days over its actual usefulness versus the benefits of proprietary software depends in part on the development of new applications. It was a topic that drew particularly spirited discussion during a panel on "Delivering Value and Innovation Using Open Source Software" at the, held in Philadelphia on Feb. 27.
Questions arose as to what, for example, is the best way to maximize the usefulness of the open-source code; whether open-source operation systems can remain truly open while also gaining acceptance in the corporate market place; and whether offering a source code to the general community will ensure that well-trained technologists find flaws and improve the product.
In answering the question of how open an open-source system can be and still survive in the commercial world, one panelist suggested that the answer had to do with standards.
"Standards are critically important," said Jason Matusow, manager of Microsoft's shared-source initiative. "In open source itself, the Linux kernel is the de facto standard model. The effect of open source is on how people are thinking about the intellectual property they are creating." Matusow noted that Windows wasn't created by one person alone but that, like Linux, it is the result of many persons' input. "It is hard to do what those of us do," he added. "It takes thousands of engineers to create Windows."
The confusion may well be in terminology. The common perception--or misperception, in some eyes--is that the open-source system is free, while Windows costs money. Yet even those who may be Microsoft's competitors in certain businesses shy away from that comparison.
Open source's costs
Then, she added, the company can move some employees doing lower-level programming to more complex jobs, where they are more cost-effective. At the same time, she added, "if you are depending on the community to support and
Longtime Microsoft critic and technology researchersaid the distinction is not between open source and commercial activity but between open-source and proprietary software. No one questions that open-source software developers want to make money, but the distinction for Raymond is that those giving away their code, at least in part, provide a greater benefit to the entire community in the long run.
"Closed-source, or proprietary, software leads to crappy engineering," Raymond said. "The IT doesn't get enough review. Open source, on the other hand, is paid for by the people who want to use it.
"I don't think a Microsoft-like licensing model will ever happen with Linux," he added. "There is, indeed, a consolidation with Linux. We have had our series of modifications...But a lot of people in the community have their own incentives. It may not be money--but art. You have to learn what coin they want to be paid in."
"We have had open source for a long time," said Daniel Frye, director of the Linux Technology Center of the IBM Server Group. "The first wave of open sourcing that changed business was the creation of the Internet...when standards were open enough to connect all networks. That set of open standards drove the enablement of the e-business model. Mostly, where it has been successful has been in enabling other business models."
At the same time, the company still likes the way it has handled the proprietary rights to Windows and its other software, and doesn't intend to change that. "The word 'proprietary' has been used in such a pejorative fashion. It is really OK to own something," Matusow said. "When people talk about the Microsoft licensing model, you expect dirges and draconian things to start. When Red Hat, for example, comes out with something, they call it open source, but there is always an audit clause saying something like 'You can't just modify this and resell it.' What they do offer is better installation processes and support--a company that will stand by its product. This is all commercial software licensing, not just 'the Microsoft model.'"
David and Goliath
Yet some who thrived in the open-source world before it grew in popularity fear that it will eventually be overrun by those Goliaths--or that it will become just another commodity. "You can look at what happened in the last several years, as commercial America co-opted open source--or, better, how open source has been able to find ways of making money," Olson said. "But I'm not sure that isn't a good mix. We think there is a lot of good in open source, but to survive, it has to become commercial, too."
According to Raymond, the big distinction in the long run is that open-source engineers and users believe that source code is best when it is tested by outsiders as well as insiders. "The fascinating paradox is that you maximize value of intellectual property by giving some of it away," he noted.
"If you decide to do an application on Linux, you have two paths. One is to do it proprietarily and use Linux as a platform. The other strategy--the more interesting one--is that if you cooperate completely with the open-source community, you get testing help you wouldn't get anywhere else. You multiply your company by the brain power of hundreds of thousands in the open-source community out there," Raymond said.
"That is where the real advances in IT will come."
All materials copyright © 2004 of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
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