Open source software

November 11th, 2008 | Posted by Pablo Yabo in firefox | opensource | opinion

Everyone likes something for free, but open source is free as in freedom not as in beer.

Lots of companies use open source software and many put a lot back into the open source world but just how much do they put back?

It is impossible to find a definitive answer to this so we are just pointing out some ethical issues, when a “leecher” takes the work of others without giving back its detrimental to the open source movement.

In 1993 Apple’s Operating System was seriously in need of an upgrade. Their internal development of a new OS was not going well, so they looked externally for an OS.  BeOS and NeXTSTEP were the main candidates,  BeOS was a completely new OS developed from scratch and NextSTEP was an OS built on top of BSD.  They went with NextStep and acquired the company behind it NeXT for $429 million.  BeOS was later bought by Palm, inc after which they discontinued BeOS.  BeOS users without a viable upgrade path and BeOS developers with programs stranded on an unsupported platform then decided to develop Haiku, an Open Sourced operating system.

NeXTSTEP then went on to become MacOS X.  Apple released the Open Sourced Darwin, The core components of MacOS X, in 2000 under the Apple Public Source License.  This release spawned OpenDarwin, a project designed to create a stand alone Darwin operating system.  This failed with the developers stating OpenDarwin had “become a mere hosting facility for Mac OS X related projects.  Availability of sources, interaction with Apple representatives, difficulty building and tracking sources, and a lack of interest from the community have all contributed to this.” There is a new project called PureDarwin which is currently trying to complete a release based on Darwin 9.

Apple used to distributed a binary release of Darwin themselves but stopped in 2005.  Currently they only release the source code of Darwin, Although within this they include proprietary drivers of their AirPort wireless cards.  They also exclude Carbon, Cocoa, Quartz Compositor and the Aqua user interface.  This prevents users from running MacOS X software.  There were good reasons for Apple to go via the closed source route for these but when taking so much from the Open Sourced Community surely it would be nice to give more back? Although some people say Apple have saved BSD.

Microsoft is a company well known for their closed source software.  Originally network protocols were an add on to their operating systems and it wasn’t until windows 95 that the TCP/IP Stack became part of the operating system.

Originally they tried their own protocol Netbeui and then reverse engineered Novell’s IPX protocol but finally they adopted the BSD’d TCP/IP (you can see the BSD license within their source here.) There is nothing ilegal in Microsoft using the BSD code for their implementation of TCP/IP but because the code was under the BSD license any changes they made were not released for the benefit of the rest of us.  If the code had been under the GPL license would they have used it?  Who knows but it would have forced them to release any updates they made.  Maybe they would have developed an alternative protocol and the internet would not be as it is today!

Flock is an interesting case of a company using open source for the basis of their product.  Flock itself is an open sourced project where

“Yes, Flock will be open source.  We may incorporate some proprietary technologies into our browser and releases some features under a commercial license, but all of our initial code, and the vast majority of our code going forward, will be open source.”

We know the Flock developers want to keep Flock compatible with Firefox and it may be based on Firefox, but they are two separate projects.  Code will increasingly change and although extensions currently work on both browsers as the code develops we’ll see extensions working with either Firefox or Flock.  What will happen if Firefox decide to implement some of Flock’s ideas differently?  Will Flock go to their source and follow the way Firefox have implemented the idea?

Would it have been possible for the Flock developers to have just released an extension that just adds the tools that Flock adds?  With the creation of a new browser they have potentially forked the developers of extensions for Firefox.  Flock has investors to keep happy,  is it possible for them to do that whilst keeping extension compatible with Firefox?

What about Google’s File system? This is a customized file system that writes LARGE chunks of data and sits above a standard Linux file system.  What changes have Google made to the “standard” Linux file system? Are they going to give the open source community their code? As the software is running on a server and not being distributed they don’t need to share the code but should they?

We all know Google also uses a stripped down optimized version of the Linux Kernel for high performance without which they couldn’t possibly exist.  What changes have they made that they’re not sharing with the rest of us? The hiring of Andrew Morton does help though.

For example there are a number of companies that use data the most well known being Google Directories which combines the dmoz data with its own pagerank. Does this make dmoz irrelevant? How are they contributing to the dmoz project?

When money becomes involved it isn’t uncommon for a project to move from open source to closed source.  Activecollab was one such project,  originally released under an open source license, it has since moved to a closed source commercial project.
“When it was first released, activeCollab came with an open source license and that was what attracted me to the project. I thought it held promise of being a very powerful and useful project management application if developed by an active community of users.
But the developer has decided to stop open source development on the project. Development will now be closed source, at least on the core features. The next release, version 1.0 due out next week, will also not have a free version. Your only options for activeCollab 1.0 are SmallBiz ($199) and Corporate ($399).”

Although a fork has been started the move to closed source will have alienated a lot of developers and users.

It is interesting to watch Mozilla to see how their creation of a “for profit” corporation which supports the popular Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird E-mail client as well as developing custom software based on open sourced products.  This happened in 2005 now 3 years later has much changed?

“the Mozilla Corporation is not a typical commercial entity and will only pursue revenue-generating activities that are consistent with offering end-users with the best experience possible.”

Mozilla did ask the public for money in a 2 page advert on December the 16th 2004.  This was before the creation of their commercial wing but with reports of as much as $72 million being poured into Mozilla Corporate from Google for carrying Google advertisements why are they still asking for donations?

Should the people who donated before the corporate side was formed be considered shareholders of Mozilla corporate? What about new donators?  Why should you donate to an organization that has a very wealthy corporate company behind it?

Will all the contributors to Firefox and Thunderbird be given shares or money for their work that the Mozilla corporation are profiting off?

We can see that Firefox and Thunderbird are both still available for free from the Mozilla website, Both currently supported by Google’s Ad money and donations, but for how long?  With Firefox being the cashcow for Mozilla Corporate will Thunderbird fall by the wayside?  There are rumors that it will find itself under a different company with Mozilla Corporate becoming Firefox Corporate.

One companies solution is the advent of dual licenses.  They release their software as both open source under the GPL and as a commercial product.  This allows them to employ staff full time to work on the product, It also allows companies that wish to use the software and modify it but not share their code with others that opportunity.

In the Games Market id Software also license their older game engines under the GPL as well as offering the opportunity to use their engines under a commercial license. Other companies such as 3d Realms and Parallax Software have released the source code for some of their games but without a commercial option for their engines.  The dual license here obviously benefits companies wishing to add to the source code to the detriment of being forced to release possible upgrades to the original open source engines.

Another place where Open Source software has taken off is in Web services. Many companies are taking advantage of Open Source software on the Web but they’re not obligated to publish their code if they make any changes because they are not redistributing the software in a package as either a download or a physical medium.  The web is a new distribution medium for them.

A License has been developed to apply to the software that is in this loophole, The Affero GPL.  This licenses software that is ran on a server.  One such project is in the UK where petitions to the Prime Minister is ran on Open Sourced AGPL v3 software.

What is the fair value of return to the open source if you earn a lot of money?

“IBM says to a customer, ‘Do you want proprietary or open software?’ Then if they want open source they say ‘OK, you want IBM open source.’  It is always IBM or Sun or HP open source,”

“Companies are using the potential of communities as subcontractors — the open source community today is a subcontractor of American multinational” said Jesús Villasante, head of software technologies at the European Commission

in reply James Baty, a vice-president at Sun, said that companies such as his have a responsibility to contribute to the open source community.  Sun itself contributes to a number of open source projects, including the open source productivity application

“There are companies that are takers from the open source community, other companies are taking the attitude that they have to contribute, Open source should be seen as an opportunity, not as something to capture and abuse.”

We know major corporations have made valuable contributions to open source software, as well as persuading businesses and IT professionals that it is a credible alternative to proprietary options, but do they take more than they provide?

We here at Nektra Believe Open Source will always have an important place in the world and provide CookiePie under GPL, NKT WAB under LGPL and Trappola under LGPL, but it is essential that the Open Source community is not taken advantage off and valuable contributions are put back into the community.

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