In a nod to the open-source development model, IBM has patented a scheme that maps out a method of payment for broad numbers of developers working together on projects, a move that has upset some developers.
In U.S. Patent number 6,658,642, which IBM applied for in June of 2000 and was granted last month, the systems giant identifies a “system, method and program product for computer program development” that employs a distributed programming model, according to the documentation defining the patent.
The patent describes the current software development environment, where pressure to turn out quality software quickly is pushing companies to rely on developers outside their corporate walls.
“The high-tech industry is moving very fast and the first to market has a big advantage over competitors, often deciding the early winner,” IBM said in a description of the patent. “So, speeding up software development increases the likelihood of success. One way to speed up software development is to increase the number of programmers on the project, distributing the workload to as many programmers as possible. Unfortunately, hiring people for a very short period of time complicates rather than simplifies development.”
The description cites a programmer shortage and adds: “So, to supplement their permanent workforce, companies are forced to contract with independent contractors, delegating customized or specialized software development to the contractors. Typically, the contractors are paid either in advance or, incrementally, as the project progresses. Regardless of how much the package developer may be willing to pay, contractors still face the same programmer shortage.”
The IBM “invention” is aimed at “reducing software development time and costs, while increasing the likelihood of software development success,” the patent said.
“As a result, with the advent of Internet, to maximize the number of programmers working on a particular project, collaborative software development projects, such as open source software development (e.g., Linux), are undertaken or initiated daily. Web based electronic businesses have formed offering contractors a solution to temporary programmer shortages,” the patent said. “One such e-business is an auction site (www.cosource.com) for software development contracts, focusing on the needs of open source development. However, this approach matches a single programmer with each task. Money is paid in advance with the package developer bearing the risk that the project will not complete on schedule.”
Yet, IBMs patent defines a mechanism for paying programmers who work in an open-source-like model.
Skilled Personnel Unleashed
The model would enable IBM to “unleash the full potential of world-wide skilled personnel, with the possibility that when the offered price is high, many developers will try to compete and deliver a module even with no money up front,” the patent said.
Defining how the payment scheme would work, the patent said: “A new computer program to be developed is outlined and the outline organized to identify required modules. Required modules are provided to the system, which categorizes them and posts a list of required modules with corresponding requirements on, for example, a dedicated web site. Module requirements may include module specifications, a corresponding price and a deadline. Software developers intending to participate may provide an intention to submit. If fewer than two developers intend to submit module candidates for one or more required modules, the computer program outline may be reorganized to encourage more participants. For each required module where at least two module candidates are received, the candidates are tested for compliance with corresponding module requirements. A module candidate is selected for each required module for inclusion as a module included in the software package and payment is transferred to developers of the selected module candidates.”
An IBM spokeswoman was unable to provide comment on Monday evening, as the researchers involved were unavailable.
However, IBM issued a press release earlier this month citing the number of patents the company had been issued in 2003. According to IBM, the company was issued 3,415 patents last year by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And the company had more than 1,400 software-related patents, or about 40 percent of the patents the company received last year, IBM officials said.
In fact, with the 3,415 patents IBM said it broke the record for patents received in a single year. And during the past 11 years, IBM has gained more than 25,000 U.S. patents.
Although the patented scheme appears to mimic an open-source model, IBM does not call it an open-source development paradigm.
The company has invested heavily in open source and is one of the leading proponents of the Linux operating system.
Last week at the LinuxWorld conference in New York, IBM officials touted the companys respect for the open-source community.
Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBMs general manager of e-business on demand, told eWEEK in an interview, “We have been very sensitive to be good citizens [of the open-source community]. If you want to be accepted you have to show up with your best and brightest. It has been a good relationship, but we work very hard at it.”
Developers seemed to have mixed feelings on the issue, though many were unhappy. For instance, Slashdot posters were of mixed opinion on the move.
“Oh yeah … well Im going to patent paying IBM workers. Take that big blue,” one Slashdot poster said.
Another Slashdot poster wrote: “They might want to patent this just to simply hold the patent. They could let anyone who wants to use it, to use it for free, or donate it to the FSF. Maybe they just wanted to get it before another company with more devious plans got it. Think what Microsoft would do with this. They would kill Open Source, or do their damnedest to do it, with the new tool. I just think there might be a chance IBM has some pure intentions here.”
And a third said: “As opposed to Microsoft (who has never enforced any patents, so some people even think they dont have any), IBM has in the past enforced their patents and squeezed a great deal of money from others by doing so. Plus, IBM has 10x the patent portfolio that Microsoft has.”