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From the Desktop: Opening Up the Rest of Linux

Stretching the Bounds of "Open"

  • July 14, 2000
  • By Brian Proffitt

As a sort of "welcome to the new neighborhood" column, I was going to celebrate with a sneak peek at Red Hat 7.0. Alas, the people in the scarlet chapeaus have threatened me with severe punishment if I even breathe a word of what's under the hood. Since I really enjoy writing with all ten digits in perfect working order, I have opted out of discussing that topic.

But the very strictly enforced non-disclosure agreement from Red Hat raises an interesting question--when does a Linux company get so big that by virtue of its size it starts behaving like the company it and its peers swore it would never emulate? The last time I saw an NDA like this was from Redmond when I was testing Windows 95.

Face it, Red Hat and some of the other Linux companies, now flush with wealth, fame, and influence in the computer and business world, are starting to react in a perfectly human manner: they're trying like heck to keep it.

Human beings are very acquisitive creatures. To paraphrase George Carlin, we love our stuff. Are we honestly expected to believe that the Linux industry won't have its version of Microsoft any time in the future? Someone in this worthy pack of competitors wants to be number one and thanks to human nature, they want to stay there.

The question is: how will they get there and how will they stay there? Will it be a clean fight, or will it be Monday Night Nitro with the WCF?

Already companies are starting to change little bits and pieces of the GPL to suit their needs in a way that make them seem altruistic when they really aren't. For instance, a few weeks ago, Lucent Technologies announced it was partnering with British company Vita Nuova, which would be the sole licensor of Lucent's Inferno OS and API. Vita Nuova is planning on releasing the source code of Inferno as a way of providing its customers with the tools they need to customize the software to their liking.

Notice I said customers, not the general public. You see, unlike a real GPL, VN is opting to provide the entire Inferno source to just its customer base in a pay-per-seat arrangement. Lucent, it seems, had little luck selling the technology itself for the last 4 years and now it hopes that VN can do the job with this pseudo-open license arrangement.

When open source becomes a marketing strategy, and not a goal in and of itself, then something's not right.

The debate between proprietary and open formats rages every day. Here's another example: someone at Linux Today recently got a press announcement for a Linux product from a PR person. Nothing unusual there, Linux Today gets things like that all the time. But this attached file was a MSWord document. The editor at LT asked that the attachment be sent back as an ASCII text or HTML file--two formats a lot less proprietary than a .doc file.

At first, my reaction to this tale was bemusement, since the PR person obviously did not know her audience. Then it was puzzlement, since there are a myriad of tools out there that can read many different file formats. The editor could have opened the file with word2 or StarOffice or something like that.

Then, after a cajoling reminder from my friend who related this tale, I realized that proprietary file formats are barriers that just don't need to be anymore.

Some vendors have taken the anti-virus approach to dealing with file formats. If a file format exists, they reason, then we will provide the ability to read it and write to it. StarOffice is a classic example of this method, because it can open everything but the kitchen sink.

Don't get me wrong, I like StarOffice, and this particular ability is one of the reasons why. If we have to play in the multi-file format sandbox, then I want the biggest toys. But how much efficiency do users have to sacrifice to deal with alien formats?

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