Free Agent: Talk of the Linux Town

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

For nearly three years, I've resisted the temptation to turn my monthly visit to this soapbox into a mélange of punditry and prognostication. I've tried to stick mostly to hands-on experiences with Free Software, and to telling you how to get the most out of those offerings. But this month, two recent news stories have me itching to comment. So, welcome to the first-ever Free Agent grab bag column. I'll begin with thoughts on the Microsoft-Novell deal, move on to Sun's having set Java Free, and then wrap up with some thoughts and an open question about hardware support in Linux.

Is Novell the Benedict Arnold of Linux?

First on the docket: Novell's recent agreement with Microsoft. If you've kept up with the online coverage of this story and find it all very confusing, welcome to the club. One moment, one publication says this makes Microsoft a Linux "partner", and the next, another claims this deal spells doom for Linux.

There's a lot of disagreement about what the deal means, and that disagreement has surfaced in more than one public sphere;, for example, was a real mud fight for a few days. It's easy to understand why: A lot of Free Software developers (specifically, Gnome and Mono developers--the descendants of the original Ximian crew) work full-time for Novell, and can't be expected to take kindly to their employer being called "evil" and other such things. Then there are other Free Software developers who work for companies such as Red Hat, which competes directly with Novell; these folks believe that Novell has just flushed the values of the Free Software community down the toilet to gain a competitive advantage.

So emotions are running hot, tensions are running high, and everyone has a different idea of what it all means. The developers who maintain Samba--the software that lets Linux boxes talk to Windows-based networks--have drafted an open letter expressing their concerns. The letter seems an eloquent and concise framing of the issues at hand, and starkly points out that the Microsoft-Novell agreement certainly violates the spirit of the GNU General Public License (which governs the Linux kernel and many of the other components of a typical Linux setup), and perhaps the letter of it, too.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that Microsoft has agreed not to sue Novell's customers for the use of any technologies in SuSE Linux that may infringe on Microsoft's patents. Now, software patents are a colossally bad idea to begin with, and it could be that we're about to see an example of why.

Two weeks after the Microsoft-Novell deal was announced, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer didn't exactly drop the other shoe, but he did brandish it, declaring publicly that Linux infringes on Microsoft's intellectual property. He went on to say that a Linux user not shielded by the Novell deal "basically has an undisclosed balance-sheet liability." (Novell chief executive Ron Hovsepian, in an open letter on Novell's Web site, subsequently took issue with Ballmer's comments, saying the company's agreement with Microsoft in no way constituted an acknowledgement that Linux infringes on Microsoft's intellectual property.)

The rules of the game are clear. Linux distributors are expected to strike a deal with Microsoft to "protect" their users. Customers of distributors who don't play ball run the risk of being sued. Make no mistake: The threat is a transparent attempt to stifle adoption of Linux by businesses. It is a typical tactic from Microsoft's playbook of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

What remains to be seen is the bite behind Microsoft's bark. The company has yet to make any specific claim with respect to where Linux might be infringing. After a few months, will it pick a high-profile customer of a Linux distributor that has not fallen in line (Red Hat, perhaps?) and file suit? In that case, Microsoft would have to start showing some evidence, in the form of specific infringement claims.

Time would tell whether such claims hold any water. (I'm guessing not.) But of course, Microsoft doesn't even need valid claims to make things miserable for Red Hat and others; it has the money to make an expensive legal case grind on for years, even if the case is more or less baseless. (Don't believe me? Ever heard of a company called SCO and its ludicrous but unending fight against IBM?) In any case, it's beginning to look like 2007 could be a busy year for reporters who follow Linux--but sadly, we might be covering courtrooms, not coders.

Free Java for Everyone

The other bit of earth-shattering news in the Free Software world this past month was Sun's long-awaited, long-clamored-for, long-overdue decision to make the Java programming language completely Free. Since its creation, Java has been cost-free (free as in "free beer"), but not Free as defined by the Free Software Foundation (free as in "free speech"). Sun has always maintained strict control over the evolution and development of Java. Though Java's source code has been available, members of the public have not been permitted to modify that code and redistribute those alterations. All that changes now that Java is available under the GPL.

Who cares? Honestly, at the moment, only Free Software geeks do. Depending on where you come down on the politics, you either demand that all the software you run be Free (the father of Free Software, Richard M. Stallman, aka RMS, falls into this category), or you strive to run as much Free Software as possible, using proprietary software only when no alternative exists (I include myself in this category, to the dismay of purists like RMS). Sun's move makes geeks in both camps supremely happy. Java can now be included with Linux distributions. Developers can code Free apps with Java, without any fear that Sun's terms for Java use might change later.

All this is well and good, but what difference does it make to end users who don't care one whit about coding in Java? The answer is simple: Sun's decision gives Free Software developers one more powerful, mature tool in their arsenal as they continue crafting powerful, mature alternatives to commercial operating systems (not to mention common applications such as word processors and media players).

When you give builders new tools, better tools, and more powerful tools, they can build more stuff, they can build it faster, and they can build it more effectively. The net effects of Sun's move with Java cannot yet be seen. But mark my words: When we take another look at Free desktops two or three years from now, we'll be able to point to all kinds of things and say, "See, we wouldn't have this today if Java weren't Free."

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
Shop Tech Products at Amazon