Generous open source donations ultimately pay off

Software vendors are donating once proprietary software to open source -- and be sure there's a method to their madness.

Give and you shall receive.

That credo has become part of the business model for some software vendors, large and small, that are giving the open source community notable chunks of what was once proprietary source code. These donations are being hailed on many fronts as gestures of good faith to the community, while some skeptics wonder if the vendors are just dangling the code as bait in an attempt to get some enterprises hooked on supported versions of other products.

The list of freshly open software tools is impressive: the Ingres database, Ximian Connector, Java 3D, Cobalt, YaST, iFolders and more.

Novell Inc. has been the biggest donor as much for political as social reasons. Since acquiring Ximian and SuSE Linux, Novell's future is infinitely tied to Linux and donations like YaST and the Ximian Connector to open source have important ramifications for the company's business.

By sending these tools to the community, enterprises can not only download and deploy them in their IT environments, but hackers can also mold and tweak the software for the benefit of all –- including Novell.

"By and large, I think you're going to see contributions in the form of tools that are helpful to the development of their IP, but not the IP itself," said Linux expert and author Steve Shah of the numerous donors. "For example, a company that uses an open source tool for testing or as a foundation to their product will generally find it to their benefit to submit those changes back to the community. Not only do others benefit, but others will be able to make improvements and continue the extension. Best of all, the next time the company wants to get an update from that tool, all of their changes are already a part of it."

Such is the case with the Ximian Connector, which links Exchange environments to the Linux-based Evolution messaging and collaboration suite. Evolution is included in every major Linux distribution, and the Ximian Connector advances Linux's cause in an important mission-critical area while adding more gleam to Novell's star in the eyes of the community.

"The products overall will improve as everyone's contributions are folded back in to the mainstream open source code," said author of Linux Programming by Example: The Fundamentals Arthur Robbins. "For example, for a while IBM was funding work on the GNU C library regular-expression matching routines. I, as a GNU maintainer, was able to pick up that work, which was significant, and benefit from it immediately.

"It directly improved the quality of the program that I maintain (GNU Awk - gawk), and I'm grateful to them. I, in turn, was able to work with their developer to make sure that the new versions of the routines were functional. A win-win all around," Robbins said.

Sun, meanwhile, has wrestled with releasing the Java development platform and its Solaris operating system to open source of late. In the interim, smaller pieces of Java code like Java 3D and Project Looking Glass for the desktop development has been open sourced. Sun has also released its Cobalt Linux Web hosting servers to open source.

Sun's initiatives are licensed under its community licensing program, which like Microsoft's Shared Source program, has not gained the same kind of traction that full open source has.

"It is hard to imagine what the industry would look like today if the hardware platform for the PC had not been commoditized. Prices would have been higher, development would have been slower, and interoperability would have been a constant problem," said Karen Faulds Copenhaver, executive vice president and general counsel of Black Duck. "Open source will have the same effect on the software industry. A common platform enhances the competitive environment. Competition is good for everyone and we will all reap the benefits."

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