Notes from GOSCON

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was fortunate enough to attend and present at the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) earlier this week in Portland, Oregon. As advertised, the conference was excellent. Attendees included representatives from a number of government agencies, both here in the US as well as from numerous foreign countries. Not surprisingly, there were also a good number of government contractors, vendors and service providers in attendance, as well as others interested in open source software from a government perspective. These demographics yielded not just great presentations, but also lively question and answer sessions and very abundant networking opportunities as well. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in this area to consider attending GOSCON in the future.

Of particular note among the many strong presentations at the conference was the emphasis on the increasing importance of open standards to the growth and vitality of open source software. Jim Zemlin, the Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, began the discussion on this topic with his keynote titled “Open Source and Freedom.” The presentation focused on the importance of open standards in the context of the adoption of Linux. In particular, Zemlin highlighted the efforts of the Linux Foundation to create a set of open standards for Linux. Dubbed the Linux Standard Base (LSB), the goal of these standards is to help promote and preserve interoperability between applications designed to run on the Linux operating system and each of the various versions of Linux in existence today.

Linux is often thought of as a single operating system. However, as the popularity of Linux has grown, so too have the number of distributions (or versions) of the Linux operating system in existence. For example, Linux distributions now include offerings by Red Hat, SUSE, Ubuntu, Mandriva, Debian, Gentoo, and a growing list of others. Each of these distributions principally comprises the Linux kernel (and non-kernel parts of the GNU operating system) as well as other assorted software. While each of these distribution can rightfully lay claim to being a form of “Linux,” differences do exist between each of the individual distributions. These differences, although often subtle, can result in incompatibilities between the distributions themselves and difficulties in creating applications that will operate on multiple distributions (without having to make modifications to the application to accommodate the differences in each distribution). To help avoid these issues, the LSB seeks to provide a common set of standards for Linux distributions and applications designed to run on these distributions. The standards help ensure that applications written to run on Linux will run on all Linux distributions certified as compliant with the LSB, while allowing sufficient flexibility for each Linux distribution to continue to maintain its own unique characteristics. Zemlin indicated that all major Linux distributions have moved to comply with the LSB and many major application vendors, like MySQL, RealNetworks and SAP, are certifying their applications to the LSB as well.

Gartner vice president Andrea Di Maio continued to build on this theme in his keynote titled “Open Standards and Open Source: Taking a Closer Look.” Di Maio focused on dispelling the myth that software is fully “open” simply because it is licensed under an open source license. Full “openness,” Di Maio says, is dependent not just on the presence of an open source license but also on open standards as well. In particular, Di Maio noted that pitfalls such as vendor lock-in are avoidable only if the software in question is written to an open standard. Software meeting the standard can be replaced with other software also written to that standard at a greatly reduced cost (in terms of both time and money). Likewise, software written to the standard can more seamlessly communicate and interoperate with other software written to that standard (again, at a greatly reduced cost). Merely being licensed under an open source license does provide this same guarantee. In true Gartner fashion, Di Maio provided the results of a number of Gartner studies demonstrating these points. I do not yet have access to Di Maio’s presentation, but will post a link here when they are made available online.

These presentations highlight the growing importance of open standards to open source. While we do not typically think of adopting Linux and other open source offerings as potentially leading to vendor lock-in (at least not in the same way that adopting proprietary software can lead to vendor lock-in), open source software is not immune to this problem. To underscore this point, one of the speakers noted the increasingly common situation in which users of Linux choose to migrate, not to a proprietary operating system, but to another distribution of Linux. In these Linux-to-Linux migrations, one of the growing challenges is ensuring that the applications in use on the existing Linux distribution will operate in the same way on the new distribution following the migration. As the speaker then noted, the LSB is likely to play a big role in reducing these concerns.

I agree that the efforts of the Linux Foundation around the LSB are likely to be of great importance to the future of Linux. I would add, however, that the issue is likely not limited to just Linux and the LSB. As the need for interoperability in open source software continues to grow in importance, and as open source-to-open source migrations become more common with open source offerings in addition to just Linux, there will be an increasing need for open standards associated with these other offerings as well. As a result, I would expect to see a growing focus on the area of open standards in open source and the emergence of additional open standards efforts around other open source offerings. The willingness of the Linux and open source communities to embrace these efforts likely bodes well for developers and users of open source alike, and for the longterm health of the open source community in general.


IBM Opens Up The Patent Vault, Yet Again

In what I think is a fantastic move, IBM announced today that it is granting “universal and perpetual” access to certain patents potentially relevant to the implementation of more than 150 specifications for standards relating to software interoperability. IBM has posted a very thorough FAQ on the pledge, so I will spare you further details in this post.

Of course, this is not the first time IBM has made such a move. Recall that back in 2004 IBM pledged not to assert patents in its portfolio against the Linux kernel. IBM then followed that up in 2005 with a pledge to allow royalty-free use of some 500 of its patents by users and developers of software licensed under OSI-approved open source software licenses.

In relation to these past pledges (and those by other companies), the current pledge is notable not just for its breadth (the 150 specifications include the likes of ODF, SAML, SOAP and the WS-* standards) but also for its simplicity. IBM has essentially done away with the practice of forging individual royalty-free patent licensing agreements with each individual or group interested in developing an implementation around one of the 150 standards (a fairly inefficient practice) and has instead made an irrevocable covenant open to all parties interested in undertaking such development.

Talk about reduced barriers to entry (and collaboration)! Open source software is not the only area that can flourish through a collaborative atmosphere. Open standards and specifications also benefit from collaboration. And I would expect innovation and growth around each of these specifications to increase as a result of IBM’s pledge.

As an aside, I cannot help but recall back to 2004 – you remember, the days when GPLv3 was but a glimmer in Richard Stallman’s eye and the SCO v. IBM case was, well, something people were actually still talking about. During a speech I attended by Eben Moglen on the SCO case at Columbia University, Moglen noted that the copyright threat posed by the SCO case and those like it was likely no threat at all. He cited the open source community’s ability to re-implement the functionality found in any code that happened to infringe a third party copyright. While I generally tend to agree with this line of reasoning (as copyrights merely cover implementations of ideas and not ideas themselves, and implementations are fairly easy to come by), using the same reasoning with patent infringement is another matter (as patents protect ideas themselves). During the Q&A following the speech, I asked Moglen how FOSS would combat the growing threat from software patents. He replied that FOSS would no doubt “hunker down” under patent non-assertion agreements and pledges from large patent holders. In hindsight, of course, Moglen was right on. I do, however, wonder what he knew then of the pledges forthcoming from IBM and others. ;-)

In any case, I applaud IBM and the others who have made similar pledges in their efforts to foster openness, collaboration, innovation and growth through the reduction of the barriers to entry posed by patents.