BOSTON—Proponents of the free and open-source software development model are using the recently announced delays in the shipping of Microsofts Windows Vista and Office 2007 products as an example of how the companys software engineering process simply does not work well.
They are also pointing to how it stands in direct contrast with the way software gets developed in the free and open-source community, and using the delays to explain why theirs is the better choice.
Eben Moglen, general counsel for the Free Software Foundation, points to the fact that the free and open-source software community is on track to complete the process of rewriting the current GNU GPL (General Public License) by early 2007.
“My position that the best time to rewrite the GPL was when Microsoft was busy trying to meet its endless product development cycles has been vindicated,” he told eWEEK here at the LinuxWorld Conference.
“Microsoft is really the only party who truly had no stake in ensuring that a better GPL emerged from this process, so it is better to be updating the license while they are so distracted with product development that we are barely a blip on their radar screen,” he said.
Moglen is also confident that once GPL 3.0 is released and customers and developers on the Windows platform see how the community came together to create a license that benefits all of them, Microsoft will come under pressure to do the same and to be more transparent and inclusive about the terms of its Software Assurance and volume licensing plans.
But Mike Neil, Microsofts product unit manager for virtualization technologies, could not disagree more, telling eWEEK that Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., does not produce GPLd software and certainly does not have to follow those rules.
“Our licensing model is not a social model but a business one. We are not trying to make a social comment through licensing as the FSF appears to be doing with GPL 3.0,” he said. “It was gratifying to see even Linus Torvalds come out and took a stand against some of the provisions of GPL 3.0 and essentially said that the Linux operating system would not be used as a soapbox for social change.”
All Moglen would say about Torvalds public criticisms of some GPL 3.0 provisions was that “he is doing a reasonable job leading his project in the direction he wants it to go. That doesnt always mean we see eye to eye, but a better GPL is a better license for him as well.”
The message Moglen intends to spread is that all the Microsoft product delays simply underscore how flawed the companys software development model actually is.
“By comparison, the free and open-source software community is one that pretty much always gets the work done that it needs to. The public commentary around the first draft of GPL Version 3 is a good example of this,” he said.
“We have also worked hard to create a supportive environment for those software developers, by offering them financial, legal and administrative services at little or no cost. By putting this structure in place, we free them up to do what they do best: develop software,” Moglen said.
He was referring to the formation of the Software Freedom Law Center last year, which he heads, as well as the recent establishment of a Software Freedom Conservancy to provide free financial and administrative services to free and open-source software projects.
In addition, the Open Source Development Labs is setting up of a fund that will provide financial support to software developers working on Linux and open-source community projects.
With regard to the discussion process around the first draft of GPL 3.0, Moglen said some 700 comments have been received thus far, a number far lower than he had imagined when the discussion document was released earlier this year.
But that is not because of disinterest in the process, but rather because the system created for this is creating a high quality of dialogue and avoiding the duplication of comments.
The feedback is helping the FSF see alternative arguments that it had not considered, where clarification is needed and how the dialogue around policy could be sharpened, he said.
But, while there are a wide range of issues that have been raised so far, the patent and DRM (Digital Rights Management) provisions are the two that are attracting the most comments.
While the current patent system is of limited value to most companies and creates great uncertainty, doubt and unhappiness among their customers, anything GPL 3.0 does to make them responsible for the downstream consequences of those patents involves a change and raises fears.
“Nobody loves the current system or how they have to deal with it, but they also dont want what they see as unilateral nuclear disarmament,” Moglen said. “The case between Research In Motion and patent holding company NTP was a very important moment as it was a stark reminder that as long as there are patents out there, no one is safe, no matter how many promises they have.”
GPL 3.0 brings with it an incremental change down a road that all of these patent holders are going to have to go down, he said.
With regard to the GPL 3.0 DRM provisions, Moglen said this issue has the potential to become a crisis on the same scale that patents are today and that license is simply protecting the free software industrys ability to create code by tinkering with it.
“The ability to tinker with and change code without constraint is an effective tool for free software developers, and without it our mode of creation will be obliterated. DRM attempts to take that tool away from us,” he said.
Moglen said he expects that by mid-May the FSF will start issuing opinions and resolving issues raised in the commentary process. That will be followed by the release of a second GPL 3.0 DISCUSSION document, along with the first discussion document of the Lesser GPL.
Following another break in the fall to consider comments, issue opinions and resolve issues on that second draft will be a last-call comment period of some 60 days and the wrapping up of the process.
“By late 2006 or early 2007 we will issue a set of copyleft licenses that are updated to current market conditions and which we expect will remain effective for seven to 10 years,” Moglen said.