By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2004-06-30 Print this article Print

-Happy IBM"> Hey, wipe that smirk off your face, Sammy!

Yes, IBM has done more for open source than Sun has by a long shot. Id argue that if it werent for IBMs market support, Linux would still be more popular in hobbyists basements than in corporate server rooms. And lets not forget that many of IBMs most recent development efforts, such as Eclipse, have become open source.

Still, as the Sun boys point out, IBM does have a lot of software patents, and it would be nice if it werent quite so patent-happy, especially when it comes to software.

Overly broad software patents—and some days I wonder if theres any other kind—often impose unforeseen costs not just on developers, but on vendors and customers as well. For example, theres the infamous Amazon patent on one-click buying. Now, Im no patent attorney, and Im not much of a software developer, but I fail to see why enabling a customer to buy a widget or a whatchamacallit with one click should be patentable.

Or take the case of patents such as those surrounding high-speed Wi-Fis use of OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), which are only enforced after other companies take the technology and turn it into prosperous products. Wi-LAN, the patents owner, gave permission to the IEEE to use its patents in the 802.11a and 802.11g standards, but now its suing Cisco over its use of those patents in products using the exact same standards. Win, lose or draw, the end result will be higher cost for Wi-Fi users.

And boy, does IBM have patents. For example, theres U.S. Patent No. 6,304,886 for software that automatically "generates customized Web site without the Web site creator writing any HTML or other programming code." Can you say Web design wizard? Or take U.S. Patent No. 6,658,642, which covers how independent programmers might work together to produce a unified software product. Hmmm … that sounds a lot to me like the very definition of open source.

Is IBM using those patents to stifle innovation? No, it isnt—today. But it only takes one change in management, and IBM could become the kind of company that uses its software patents like a bludgeon.

So, kids, when you go back out there to play, keep in mind that real open source and standards seems to work well for everyone, and you could both stand some improvement. Now, go out there, have some clean business fun, and stop fussing with each other! Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

Check out eWEEK.coms Linux & Open Source Center at for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is editor at large for Ziff Davis Enterprise. Prior to becoming a technology journalist, Vaughan-Nichols worked at NASA and the Department of Defense on numerous major technological projects. Since then, he's focused on covering the technology and business issues that make a real difference to the people in the industry.

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