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Linux leaders at open-source summit

BURLINGAME, CA--A panel of Linux luminaries took the stage at last week's Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) Linux Summit and held forth on a range of topics, from the threat of software patents to the challenges of making a career in open source.

The panel included the creator of Linux himself, Linus Torvalds, who serves as an OSDL fellow; Mitch Kapor, chairman of the Mozilla foundation and semi-legendary founder of Lotus Development Corp; Andrew Morton, maintainer of the Linux kernel for the OSDL and Torvalds' "right-hand man"; and Brian Behlendorf, CTO of CollabNet and a founder of the Apache open-source project. The event was emceed by OSDL CEO Stuart Cohen.

Torvalds saw the current accelerating growth of demand for open-source technology as a result of what some critics see as a flaw in the process: the fragmentation of projects in the open-source community.

"What I see as a strength of open source is the fact that it is an ecosystem model, where you have competing and often symbiotic relationships between projects," he said.

Still, the fragmentation of open-source projects might also be seen as an inhibiting factor, Kapor said, at least as far as the Linux desktop is concerned.

"The reason is this 'community of communities,'" he said. "There are a number of different projects, each of which has some part of the desktop. There's GNOME, there's KDE, there's X.org, there's Mozilla, and there's Open Office. It's not principally a technical problem, but more of an organizational issue. The incentives just haven't been there for those groups to cooperate, because they each see the world slightly differently with different sets of goals."

Morton agreed that the Linux development is run by a "community of communities. The solution is to concentrate on "well-defined interfaces and standards so that the projects can work together," he said.

Behlendorf said that he spends most of his time these days talking with companies and groups about "the software problem" and how open-source approaches might help.

"There is a disaster out there in terms of how people write software," he said. "Most software projects fail, and a lot of people--even behind corporate firewalls--are trying to figure out what makes the open-source community work. I think it's good that we made it look like it works--actually there are a lot of experiments done in parallel."

The open-source approach requires risk-taking, he said, both from developers and users. In other words, they have to be "less afraid to be wrong." The trick is to focus more on the strategic value of programming in a more flexible environment, which allows companies to treat their programmers more as individuals and less as cogs in a greater system. "This is hard to represent on a balance sheet," he said.

Another thing that makes the open-source process work, Behlendorf said, is the "graceful gradient" between users and core developers. "You can move from being just somebody who downloads the code and runs it, to somebody who dives in and becomes an expert and helps other people with basic questions, to somebody who discovers a bug and reports it, to somebody who gives a really good bug report, to somebody who gives a good bug report and a patch that fixes it," he said. "Within the Apache process, at least, there's this kind of adding of abilities and commit privileges to different parts of different projects."

A question about software patents prompted Kapor to take the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to task for failing to follow its own rules. "There have been tens of thousands of bad software patents issued which never would have been issued if the Patent Office had actually been following its own rules," he said.

Kapor likened the growing cache of patents (reportedly somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 in the U.S.) "patent WMDs (weapons of mass destruction)." He said he expects Microsoft to be driven eventually to launch wide-ranging patent lawsuits. "Their business model no longer holds up in an era where it's clear that open source is simply an economically superior way to produce software," he said. "If totally pushed to the wall...of course they're going to unleash the WMDs. Why would they not?"

Torvalds said that software patents are clearly a problem, but one that the open-source community has been "pretty aware of for the last five years." "The good news is that a lot of proprietary vendors are starting to see it as a problem as well," he said.

Behlendorf challenged those who argue that software patents provide an incentive for innovation and research investment to imagine the world without them. "If you could not patent software algorithms or ideas, how much of the money spent on writing software would go away?" he asked. "How much innovation would disappear? How much investment in that innovation would disappear? I don't think any would disappear."

On the corollary subject of the lawsuit filed back in 2003 by The SCO Group against IBM for illegally contributing its proprietary Unix code to Linux, panel moderator Stuart Cohen saw a bright side to the legal rangles over patent infringement in the open-source community. "The SCO lawsuit was probably the greatest thing that every happened to acceleration of Linux and open source," he said. "If the press hadn't covered it to the extent they did, and the due diligence hadn't then been done by all of the attorneys, Linux and open source probably never would have had the rapid success that it's had over the past 18 months. Because it came through all of that with such flying colors, it became a real phenomenon."

One attendee asked for advice on pursuing a profitable career in open source. The father of Linux was not especially encouraging.

"If you're getting into open source because you see it as a career path, you're doing something wrong," he said. "I don't think you should look at this as a career path; it's a learning experience... A job in open source software development can provide meaningful work and a good living." But only for the passionate. The get-rich-quick crowd need not apply.

Beaverton, OR-based Open Source Development Labs is a global consortium focused on accelerating the adoption of Linux in the enterprise. Billing itself as the "center of gravity for Linux computing" and "home to Linus Torvalds," the OSDL sponsors industry-wide initiatives around Linux in telecommunications, in the enterprise data center, and on corporate desktops. The group also provides Linux expertise and computing and test facilities in the United States and Japan to developers around the world. Founded in 2000, OSDL is a nonprofit organization. Its founding member companies are IBM, HP, Computer Associates, Intel, and NEC. For information, visit: www.osdl.org.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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