Q

Open source advocacy groups

An expert explains the implications of open source advocacy groups.

Why should people care about cooperative projects like the Linux Foundation or the Open Source Alliance?

One reason for cooperative projects like OSA is the growing market share of Linux and the opportunity to eat Microsoft's lunch. While there is always competition in business, it makes no sense to spend time fighting each other when there is more to be gained from fighting Microsoft. I don't have figures in front of me, but at some point the slippage of Microsoft market share will move from steady nibbling to accelerating decline. If...

it hasn't already happened, cooperation will speed the day, and there will be rich pickings for everyone.

Some Linux fans object to the Linux Foundation on principle (it's sponsored by large businesses), but if you think back to the starting of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), about ten years ago it was a group of geeky Linux fans who believed that Linux could succeed only if it received commercial adoption. Yes, ugly things happen in the commercial battle (SCO lawsuit). Who can say Linux is not better off for the contributions of large firms like IBM and HP? The OSI deliberately sought to lose the narrow focus and political baggage of Free Software, and (despite some critics) the Linux Foundation is not about to put "Free Software" in its name for the same reasons.

Linux is the great motor of open source software, so it is perfectly appropriate to use its name. The Linux Foundation's CTO, by the way, is Ian Murdock, the "ian" in Debian, known as the least commercial of the widely-known Linux distributions. Like the OSA, the Linux Foundation is set up to provide a unified force in the battle with Microsoft. It will coordinate and organize the efforts of previously separate organizations dealing with patents, desktops, standards and promotion. What does any of this mean for the IT department?

The biggest help the Foundation can give will be in interoperability and legal protection. Interoperability problems have been steadily lessening. For instance, an application may run on all distributions, but it may achieve this by installing its own (duplicates of existing) libraries, fonts, etc. because it is not certain where they may be found in all distributions. Further cooperation between KDE and GNOME is also part of the plan. The Linux Foundation may well have more power to persuade hardware manufacturers to cooperate in the making of drivers open enough to be incorporated into the Linux kernel, rather than the present system in which different distributions modify the kernel in different ways as they add their own driver solutions. And how many times have you found it simpler to start from scratch rather than try to upgrade when a new kernel is released?

Probably the most important help the Foundation can give to Linux is to provide a legal entity with standing and funding to take on any patent problems. A larger war chest to pay lawyers, a fuller locker of patents to cross-license,and greater ability to search for prior art to invalidate patents are all badly needed.

This was first published in February 2007

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