This Week in Open Source News for Jan 30-Feb 5

This is the first of what I hope will become a weekly segment every Sunday on this blog to recap the hottest open source news of the week.

My favorite rumor of the week was that Google was going to start distributing a version of Linux based on Ubuntu, dubbed Goobuntu, as a way to go up against Microsoft on the desktop. It did not take Google long to begin denying this rumor. While they acknowledge using Ubuntu internally, Google says that they have no plans to distribute it externally; however, analysts still speculate that Google will continue to move into software segments where Microsoft has been strong.

Last week Linus Torvalds said that the Linux kernel would not be using GPL v3, and he continued to clarify his position this week with several additional posts. His main objection seems to revolve around the anti-DRM clause, which Linus says would be more appropriate in a content license, not a software license. He also said that “we do not – as software developers – have the moral right to enforce our rules on hardware manufacturers. We are not crusaders, trying to force people to bow to our superior God. We are trying to show others that co-operation and openness works better.” This highlights the cultural differences between the free software movement, which tends to be more politically motivated (the GPL is driven through the Free Software Foundation), while the open source software proponents tend to focus more on the software with fewer political motivations.

Mozilla delivered an update to Firefox as part of their regular two month upgrade release cycle that fixes several security and stability issues while providing better support for Mac OS X. This update also claims to fix several memory leak problems. Firefox’s memory issues have been my only real problem with Firefox, and I will be interested to see how well this works as I use it over the next week or two.

Novell demoed Linux Desktop 10, which will be released in several months. Key features include the ability to convert VB macros (commonly used in MS Excel files) into a format used by OpenOffice, the capability to play MP3 files out of the box, and the ability to handle digital camera operations seamlessly.

Red Hat joined the effort led by MIT to provide a $100 laptop by donating $2 million to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization. This will not guarantee the use of a Red Hat OS on the laptop; however, early demos of this laptop used a Fedora variant.

Firefox team member evaluates new IE7 beta

Asa Dotzler demonstrates some of the best attributes of open source culture in his evaluation of the new IE7 beta. He does a thorough job of evaluating where his competition is strong and makes suggestions for Firefox improvements in addition to pointing out many areas where IE has followed Firefox innovations. I talk about Firefox frequently in this blog because Firefox is a great example of open source culture at its finest. The Firefox community comes up with original innovations, but they are also willing to acknowledge where others have a better solution. This allows Firefox to innovate ahead of other browsers and use existing ideas from products like IE when it makes the most sense for their users. The culture of innovation and reuse is one reason that open source is becoming the phenomenon that it is today.

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Linux in China and Dot-com Growth

My blog languished while I spent the past 8 days in Hong Kong and Beijing. Sadly, my time in Hong Kong was limited to less than 48 hours for business meetings, but I was able to spend more time in Beijing. When talking to people in Beijing, most inevitably mention the tremendous growth of the city, and the traffic is reminiscent of Silicon Valley before the dot-com bust. During times of rapid population and economic growth, the infrastructure cannot keep pace with the growth of the region. Traffic jams are as much a part of daily life in Beijing as they were in Silicon Valley in 2000.

Like the proliferation of dot-com companies, China is currently experiencing a proliferation of Linux distributors. Most of these, including China Standard Software Company (CS2C), Red Flag, TurboLinux China, and Sun Wah Linux are at least in part supported by various Chinese government agencies. The Chinese government seems to be focused on encouraging the success of local Linux vendors, which helps to promote the local software ecosystem. Like during the dot-com bust, a few companies (like Google) will survive while many others will not last. We will probably see many of these local Linux vendors go out of business or merge with the strongest companies, but it is too early to do more than speculate on which ones will make the cut. Last August, there were a number of rumors about the possibility of a merger between Red Flag, TurboLinux China, and Co-Create, but we have not seen any real consolidation yet.

Linux also appears to be growing rapidly in China as many organizations replace aging Unix servers with Linux and a few governments and schools are starting to deploy Linux desktops. Earlier this month, a new Linux Certification Lab was just announced in China with support by the Free Standards Group. The growth of Linux and efforts like this certification lab highlight the importance of Linux in China. I expect to see the growth of Linux in China continue to accelerate as the local Linux vendors mature and begin to consolidate over the next year or two.

Firefox Quickly Supports New Intel Apple Systems

Within a few days of the official announcement of the early release of the new Intel Macs, Firefox has announced a late March release of the Firefox 1.5.0.2 update containing support for Intel Macs. According to the article linked below, as early as July of last year, they had initial development releases available. This is just another illustration of how quickly the open source community can support new product releases.

In addition to quick support, open source products frequently have a transparency and honesty that can be refreshing compared to the secrecy embraced by some proprietary companies. The current development release of Firefox for Intel Macs has two primary issues to be resolved before launch: compatibility issues with Flash and the need for an updated Java plugin. A user or developer can get a much better idea about whether or not a product is likely to hit the launch target when the major challenges are available along with a few details about what is being done to resolve the issues. Developers and savvy users who want to try it out a bit early can download the new version and play around with it (at their own risk, of course) if they want an early look at the product.

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Open Source Applications and Linux on the Desktop

I blogged about this before as the chicken and egg problem with desktop Linux. There are not enough people using Linux on the desktop for software vendors to port desktop apps to Linux, and there are not enough desktop applications for many people to make the switch to desktop Linux.

In the article linked below, Rosenberg suggests building on the momentum of Firefox to help drive Linux on the desktop, and I suspect that we will not see more than a small increase in Linux on the Desktop use in 2006. However, 2006 could be the year of the open source applications. The success of Firefox could lead users to begin to adopt other open source applications (OpenOffice.org, Thunderbird, etc.) As people become more comfortable with open source applications, this trend could drive a few more people to Linux on the desktop. However, we need to get over the chicken and the egg application dilemma before we will see broad adoption of Linux on the desktop for sophisticated business users with large numbers of applications.

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There Is No Open Source Community?

Here is a snippet from an ONLamp.com article titled There Is No Open Source Community.

“Some software vendors believe that open source is an ideological movement. This paradigm ignores the impact of software prices shattered by zero-cost distribution and global collaboration capabilities, both of which the internet fuels. It also ignores one of the primary factors driving customer adoption: rebellion against vendor lock-in. By combining lower cost of production with the additional freedom and flexibility endemic to open source deployments, one sees two dynamics driving both adoption and production. The push of software commoditization and the pull of customer demands have created a perfect storm for open source software.”

The article goes on to suggest that “without prices that approach zero, there is simply no room for viable open source options.” I disagree with this statement; it implies that low prices are a cause for open source success when it is more likely that the two are correlated. In fact, I suspect that open source software is helping to commoditize certain software markets, which could be driving lower prices rather than low prices driving open source. Possibly more important than low prices is that proprietary vendors are often forced to innovate above the areas that have been commoditized in order to justify their pricing structure.

Despite this bit of disagreement, this article makes some really good points.

First, global collaboration has helped fuel the success of open source software. In past blog posts, I have talked about the community element of open source, and global collaboration is a big part of most open source communities. It is amazing how quickly some open source projects are localized in various languages, and the community participation from so many people around the world with diverse backgrounds seems to encourage innovation and improve quality.

Second, rebellion against vendor lock-in is an important driver of open source. Companies want the flexibility that open source solutions provide. In some cases, open source is used by governments and companies in various countries who do not want their money to be spent making western / U.S. software companies even more powerful. See my previous blog post on Global Open Source.

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Open Source Software Revolutionizes US Patent System

This is great news, not just for open source, but for the entire software industry as a way to improve the quality of patents.

First of all, this initiative establishes open source software as prior art. It means that innovations used in open source cannot be patented by another party:

OSDL, IBM, Novell, Red Hat and SourceForge.net are developing a searchable database of open source code so patent examiners and the general public can search for prior art from the open source community when considering a patent application. Such a storage system would satisfy legal requirements for the code to qualify as prior art, IBM said.

Second, the public will be encouraged to review and provide feedback on software patents.

Finally, a patent quality index will be introduced to rate the quality of the patents.

This is a great step in the right direction for the open source ecosystem. Quite a bit of the effort from the open source community has been focused on arguing against the existence of software patents, and this initiative helps to make improvements within the existing patent system. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether or not software patents are a good idea; they do exist, and this initiative might help improve patent quality. I see this as a good thing for the software industry as a whole.

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Open Source in China

The BBC article linked below mentions that China’s biggest resource is its people. This gives China, and other countries with vibrant, emerging information technology industries, an opportunity to grow their local software ecosystem through the use of open source software. Because the source code is open for anyone to view, modify, and redistribute, China could focus on forming local, Chinese support and services organizations for open source software. Businesses in China could use MySQL, JBoss, Apache, and other software while getting updates, services and support for those applications locally. The open source communities can benefit when enhancements are contributed back to the community.

This is not just an opportunity for China. Many emerging countries could use open source software in this manner to create local jobs and nurture the local software industry.

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More on Women in Open Source

In an earlier blog post about women in open source, I talked about the huge disparity between the numbers of men vs. women involved in open source. While there are relatively few women in open source, communities are forming to bring these women together in a supportive environment. LinuxChix.org is one community “for women who like Linux and for supporting women in computing” and membership “ranges from novices to experienced users, and includes professional and amateur programmers, system administrators and technical writers.”

The beauty of online communities is that they can be easily formed to bring people with a common interest together across the globe. A few hundred years ago, we were essentially limited to local communities of people living in the same geographic area where we might be the only person in a particular occupation or with a certain interest. Due to the “magic” of the Internet, we can now collaborate with and support others with similar interests across the globe.

LinuxChix.org is just one of several online communities that exist to support other women in open source.

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Again, Open Source Innovates Ahead of a Proprietary App

As Firefox becomes more popular, Microsoft has to respond in an effort to slow their market share loss to Firefox (see my previous blog entry about Firefox nearing 10% market share). In IE7, being shown this week at CES, Microsoft has implemented a few of the features that make Firefox so popular (tabbed browsing, RSS button, etc.) While it is great to see Microsoft adding additional features to IE, it is interesting to note that Firefox is innovating ahead of Microsoft in this area. In this case the propriety, corporate application is following in the footsteps of the open source community. Now, if Microsoft could only cultivate an open community of people dedicated to writing Firefox style extensions for IE …

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