Wednesday Jul 02, 2008

Pedal-pup-propulsion, Novell style

Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, the puppy-kicking Novell community manager for OpenSUSE, has clearly been reading from the same press briefing as Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian.

At the Red Hat summit in Boston, pooch-punting Zonker (not being disrespectful, I understand Zonker prefers to be called "Zonker") revealed that he is "very disappointed" that Sun hasn't "bitten the bullet and participated in Linux". By which he means, presumably, the Linux kernel, as Sun certainly does participate in many projects which are upstream of Linux distributions; indeed, it's been recorded that Sun has more code in the average Debian distro (including the software in the repositories) than anyone else.

Beagle-booting Zonker's comments also seem to echo criticisms made of various popular Linux distros by employees of companies who produce less popular, green-themed Linux distros when they complain that the work is all downstream: "The work that's done for Solaris is done only for Solaris." Well, let's get two things clear:

1. a lot of the work funded by Sun on OpenSolaris finds its way into projects upstream from Linux, including, GNOME and important applications
2. a lot of the work funded by Sun on OpenSolaris finds its way into other open and closed-source projects including, DTrace into Linux

Zonker, if you must kick that puppy, please remove your misinformation boots first.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Tuesday May 27, 2008

Ghost Writer

Seriously, is there a worse technology journalist than Sam Varghese? His column Open Sauce - A GNU Perspective (geddit?) is a train-wreck. He's very poorly informed, self-important (he considers that if he gives a product a poor review, it's "a major PR disaster"), but what's even worse: he simply can't write.

This is the open-minded individual who insists on writing "(sic)" when quoting americanised direct speech. This is the wordsmith who crafts nonsense like Bruce Perens made what would be a move with huge repercussions, and the brainless Stormy by name, not by nature (on Stormy Peters of OpenLogic). I could go on. And indeed, I have.

Anyway, I'm revisiting Mr Varghese's column after reading his review of OpenSolaris. I will admit that I was waiting for this one, fully expecting it to be littered with factual errors and what we might kindly describe as failures of intellectual curiosity. And I wasn't disappointed. His opening salvo:

One still has to go through a requester/sponsor arrangement to submit a patch to the OpenSolaris project. (By contrast, the Ubuntu Linux distribution started by Canonical is now a little more than three-and-a-half years old - and there is no need to detail what it has achieved).

We all admire Ubuntu, and no one is going to deny it has done a fantastic job in both gaining admirers within the Linux community and, crucially, growing the popularity of Linux with people who might otherwise have not used it. But still, (and ignoring the massive differences in starting points for these projects) the truth of Mr Varghese's statement really depends on who you are. There are, after all, non-Sun committers to OpenSolaris. Sure, we want more, but I challenge Mr Varghese to put back a patch to Ubuntu without a sponsor. One will always have to go through a request/sponsor arrangement unless one has committer status.

Mr Varghese then demonstrates his ability to work the Google machine, regurgitating criticism of OpenSolaris (much legitimate - we're not claiming perfection here) from IBM employees, and then his inability to RTFM by complaining that he can't find But then he unleashes his final barb,

But the licence is what jars the most. It pops up in all its glorious detail right at the start of proceedings, the Community Development and Distribution Licence. It isn't compatible with the General Public Licence, an indicator, again, that Sun is still in two minds - should we (really) give it away or should we still continue to be control freaks?

Like many people, I have a lot of respect for the GPL, but let's be clear: only the GPL is compatible with the GPL. And the CDDL is an open source license by any - any - reasonable definition, and certainly the one to which Mr Varghese appears to subscribe. Does he even read his own column? So when he writes:

There are two Sun components that would be of interest to Linux developers if they were licensed under terms that made them portable - the ZFS filesystem and DTrace. But by the time Sun decides on whether it will open source these two, it may be time for me to bid goodbye to this world.

Let's hope not, as that would date Mr Varghese's demise as January or December 2005. Happily, DTrace and ZFS are both now available on Solaris, Mac OS X and BSD - DTrace is even available on QNX. But should Mr Varghese read this (although the evidence is that he reads very little, at least, until he has decided what his opinion is), "open source" does not equate to GPL compatibility. If it did, why would we even have the Open Source Definition? We would just have the GPL.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Monday May 26, 2008

The Inadvertently Interesting Matt Asay

I've just been enjoying the vociferous complaints on the Register's semi-informed podcast Open Season by celebrity blogger Matt Asay about his "innocuous suggestion" (read: simplistic and ill-advised comment) that non-paying users are detrimental to open source. You can read it here, but before you click, you might want to consider the author's own opinion of his writing ("I almost fell asleep typing it, it's so bland.").

Mr Asay shifts his ground between the first piece and the follow up, here. But essentially, he says this: "free riders" (which he holds to be non-paying, non-coding users of open source software) are a problem for commercial open source companies because they may encourage other paying users not to pay. Or, as Mr Asay puts it, "Why should you be the only sucker paying for what everyone else is using for free, and quite comfortably?".

Now, it seems plausible that there is a situation for which Mr Asay's proposition makes sense: perhaps even his own business. But it's worth bearing in mind that if your customer does not know what they are paying you for, perhaps they are, indeed, a "sucker". Perhaps you have sold them something they don't need. Surely a better strategy is to have paying customers who know and value what they're paying for: be it support, indemnity, warranty, training, etc. There is seldom a free-rider problem with products that have a cost per marginal unit produced.

As for Mr Asay's shrill complaints, he hints that it is destructive behaviour and counter to the interests of open source to disagree with him. Well, maybe. But, open source, even "commercial open source" is a broad church of motivation and business models, and it's very hard to speak for everything in the domain (never mind non-commercial open source). Much less if you're falling asleep while writing.

So, for one thing, the term 'free riders' is a pejorative one to my ears, and implies over-consumption and/or problems in production (and frequently implies that a public good ought to be communally produced). While I doubt that Mr Asay meant to be rude about people who use open source software without paying for it, by using a term which has come from a very precise vocabulary (even if it is more commonly used these days), it might seem as if he did.

Further, Mr Asay's comments are only applicable to projects which monetize directly. Mozilla Firefox does not charge for usage, nor does it exist on donations (although I am sure they are welcome). He appears to miss many elements of the bigger picture: that a large and growing market share leads to its own opportunities. And by regarding "contribution" only in terms of money or code (which he later expands to other activities), Mr Asay misses the point that a large user base makes it easier to grow a user base, by making your software both more accessible, and more attractive to others to develop. He seems to think that non-paying/coding users only offer the benefits that a) they are at least not paying your competitor and b) they provide an "emotional safety net who want to buy with the herd". Charming.

Free access to software can drive growth. It can allow businesses to add capabilities which they would not otherwise have explored. In other words, they wouldn't have paid money to anyone. What's more, rather than having an emotional value, a large "non-contributing" user base can have a genuine economic value.

Mr Asay claims that his argument was entirely uncontroversial, restating it to, "we need to find ways to get more code or cash from communities". Given the rampant success of open source, it's dubious that it needs to do much differently, but all the same, we know what he means. I'd prefer to restate it this way: to build a business in open source, usage of the software must translate into some economic benefit for the producer.

If indeed, Mr Asay had made this highly intuitive point, his indignation at people disagreeing with him would be understandable. But by his own admission, he was sloppy in making this point, and didn't really make any others. And so, those who hold that increasing the benefit for a producer of software does not in all cases mean having a higher proportion of users to pay for access to that software could only disagree with him.

Cheer up Matt, at least they read your blog.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Tuesday Apr 01, 2008

Last time I checked

Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian, ("ill considered" - Redmonk), not content with the murkiness of his own company's patent arrangements with Microsoft (the two companies laughably "agreed to disagree"  on whether or not their November 2006 agreement was an ackowledgement that Novell was infringing Microsoft patents), has decided to throw some mud in the general direction of OpenSolaris.

"Rather than focusing on Microsoft, Zemlin pointed Hovsepian to Sun and Open Solaris, where his comments were unusually pointed.

"I believe OpenSolaris has had about 60,000 downloads last time I looked," he said. "When you look at Linux downloads just last year [there were] over two million of just SUSE.” Hovsepian also attacked the OpenSolaris license directly.

"I would suggest to the customers and to the community, be careful. The way they’ve written their contract as soon as you look at it, you can’t go back and look at Linux.

"It’s a very dangerous contract from my perspective for someone who wants to work on Linux."

Attacking the license?  Well, any old fule knows that only GPL'd code is compatible with GPL'd code.  But presumably, Mr Hovsepian is scaremongering that those who work with OpenSolaris code have been exposed to patented methods and may face encumbrances if they want to put back to another code base.  Is that what he's getting at?  (Incidentally, his criticism remind me more of Microsoft's covenant not to sue open source developers who use Microsoft-patented methods for "non-commercial" use than anything else.  Now that's dangerous.)

Anyway, last time I checked, Sun is pretty clear on software patent policy.  You can read about it from
Mike Dillon (General Counsel), Simon Phipps and again here (Chief Open Source Officer and, ahem, my boss), Greg Papadopoulos (CTO) and Jonathan Schwartz and again here (CEO).

Secondly, Ron Hovsepian's reported figure on OpenSolaris downloads wasn't too clear.  Did he mean source code?  Or binary distributions?  When did he last check?  And who did he check with?  Of course, since Sun opened the Solaris source code, there have been millions of downloads of Solaris 10, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of downloads of Solaris Express, and I don't know how many downloads of source code, but I would put it in the tens or hundreds of thousands (I tried to calculate this, but gave up - you have the full tarball, and specific consolidations...hits per file, data transferred per gets messy and I couldn't generate a figure I could stand behind).  We've also had tens of thousands of downloads of the developer preview of the binary distribution coming out later in the year.  Which isn't bad for an operating system that hasn't been launched yet.

Ron Hovsepian

Ron, left, not right

But enough about us.  Last time I checked, Microsoft's intepretation of Novell's patent licensing agreement was,
"If a customer says, 'Look, do we have liability for the use of your patented work?' Essentially, If you're using non-SUSE Linux, then I'd say the answer is yes," -Steve Ballmer
More on this in the latest episode of the Register's Open Season podcast (27:20 minutes in) -this is not necessarily historical issue.

Now this isn't Mr Hovsepian's first ill-informed and misleading attack on OpenSolaris, but I don't think that's it's really our fault.  Simply put, he has a shortage of targets.  I mean, who else is he going to attack?  Given his position, he can't very well attack another Linux distro, and he's hardly going to attack Microsoft.  Apple?  For successfully porting of OpenSolaris technology into their operating system (without licensing any patents, we might point out)?  Doesn't really work, does it?

Open source needs better leadership that this.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Monday Jan 21, 2008

Only trust a flamboyant braggart

Make sure you don't miss the insight of industry insider John Dvorak's coverage of the Sun-MySQL deal. He isn't falling for the clueless mainstream line that this deal actually makes any sense for the parties involved. Uh-uh.

So what if
"Sun has busted right into the vibrant gut of the Linux market by grabbing the M. Red Hat can sit on the box. Sun will go ahead and own your data layer though, thank you very much."

So what if
"In addition, Sun gets the attention of thousands of developers, including many of those P[Perl, php, Python] folks."

"This deal stinks from top to bottom", explains Mr Dvorak. "I'm close to being convinced that Oracle wanted to buy MySQL to kill the product, but knew that it couldn't pull off the stunt itself. It would be too obvious, especially to European Union regulators. So it sent in a stooge to do the job."

This isn't any old embarrassing pile of speculation hastily cobbled together by a self-promoting hack who needs a contrary opinion to maintain his profile. Mr Dvorak's track record on explaining the ins-and-outs of Silicon Valley is second to none. What's the secret being Google's great success?

"Working both harder and smarter...That's all there is to it; the rest is smoke and mirrors."

Ah, but if it's really so simple, how come no one else is doing what Google is doing? Mr Dvorak saw that one coming:

"Right now, nobody wants to do that." Now you know.

So, why is the deal taking place at all? Regular Dvorak readers will know all about that: it's the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act. The high cost of regulation is forcing companies to remain private and therefore they become attractive acquisition targets. And the charming Mr Dvorak is the man to expose this fact for two reasons. He's brave and he's certainly not overpaid:

I'm not sure if the reticence to openly carp is because of [the executive class'] generally inflated salaries that would make them look like whining divas or if it is a simple lack of courage. Probably both.

Mr Dvorak's inescapable conclusion: if you want to eliminate deals that "stink", regulate less.

Any sceptics who still might think that this deal will work out well for Sun, for MySQL and for MySQL customers and MySQL users will have the last vestiges of doubt blown away by the knowledge that the price Sun paid for MySQL was especially unfair, being simultaneously too high:

"Sun cannot actually afford to spend a $1 billion on a company producing a mere $60 million in revenue and working outside its core competencies."

and too low:

"and there should have been a publicized bidding war resulting in a much higher price than $1 billion."

Any student of economics knows that pricing imperfections result from a lack of information. So, who's to blame? The diplomatic Mr Dvorak reluctantly points out,

"Part of this silence stems directly from the fact that MySQL is a Swedish company, and heaven forbid the Swedes announce their intentions or do anything that would appear flamboyant or be interpreted as (gasp) bragging! "

A traditional Swedish lack of flamboyance

Swedes don't brag, see. Although this may come as news to Norwegians and Danes who recently learned that Stockholm anointed itself "capital of Scandinavia". For all that, Mr Dvorak is correct. Swedes don't boast. So as a non-Swede living here, let me note, that Sweden has been rated as

the world's most democratic country; the best country for women (take that any way you want); performing the best on climate protection performance; the 3rd biggest exporter of music (and easily biggest per capita); the best at helping foreigners integrate; the world's leading nation brand; the world's biggest investor in R&D per capita. So, why no bragging? Well, perhaps because Sweden has the world's best behaved children.

Another piece of Mr Dvorak's that caught my eye was this one about media consolidation on the internet:

"The only papers or news organizations that can expect to survive will be those with lots of original content available only at their individual sites."

Well, with content this original, I'm sure we can expect to enjoy Mr Dvorak's writing on Marketwatch for a long time to come.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Thursday Aug 30, 2007

Just because it worked, it doesn't mean we did it

So is standardisation a game or a process? I ask this after reading Jason Matusow's staggering act of disingenuity about Microsoft's apparent offering of incentives and ready-formed opinions to partners (mostly Swedish IT resellers) for them to join the Swedish Standards Institute (SIS) and vote in favour of accepting Microsoft's not uncontroversial Office Open XML specification\*.

After Computer Sweden broke this news, Microsoft helpfully clarified that they didn't actually do anything wrong because they, er, realised what they were doing was wrong. And so 18 Microsoft Gold Partners joined SIS and voted to approve Microsoft Open Office XML last Monday, in spite of these incentives being retracted. Mr Matusow says that incentives were only offered to two partners in the first place, the quote in Computer Sweden said it was "a few" (”ett fåtal”).

infinitives, hairs...whatever

Mr Matusow wants to be clear - the incentives were retracted, and any other lobbying was not actually against any rules, and therefore fair game:

"It is critical to note that the addition of voting members at that time was completely within the rules of the national standards body.
...While there are many arguments to be had over the relative merits of this rule…it is a rule nonetheless.
...The process and vote at SIS were not affected."

Well, we do rather have to take his word for it, but either way, it would be only be "critical" if all you are actually interested in is the formal approval of a respected international standards body - or "playing to win". If you were seeking to make a good standard (i.e. submitting to the process), wouldn't it be critical to note that the 6 months of work that SIS delegates did examining the specification will not now see the light of day because of addition of so many parties to the vote at the very last moment?

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

\* we're told it was a "zealous" employee. For an idea of just what a zealous employee might look like, click here.

Monday Aug 27, 2007

Mr Serious

Last week it was suggested that I had made a somewhat frivolous criticism of Steven J Vaughan Nichols' journalism.

Not guilty.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Monday Aug 13, 2007

Journalist, read thyself

Self-styled Cyber Cynic Steven J Vaughan-Nichols published this piece suggesting that recent developments in the IBM-SCO case may compromise the OpenSolaris project.

To be clear, I think that people like Steven J Vaughan-Nichols do an important job. There are times when self-conscious cynicism should be one's guiding light (as anyone who has recently wasted three hours of their weekend trying to get rid of a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesperson can tell you). Moreover, I can't comment upon the legal merits of his argument, being under-qualified (i.e. not qualified at all), not authorised and generally lacking the requisite ambition. But I can comment on the article itself.

To wit:

"Sun's Jonathan Schwartz -- then Sun VP of software and today Sun's president and CEO -- said in 2003 that Sun had bought "rights equivalent to ownership" to Unix.

SCO agreed. In 2005, SCO CEO Darl McBride said that SCO had no problem with Sun open-sourcing Unix code in what would become OpenSolaris."

As I read this, Mr J Vaughan-Nichols seems to be implying that Sun believes it bought the rights necessary to open source Solaris from SCO.

However, clicking on the link he provides that quotes Jonathan Schwartz, one quickly realises that Mr Schwartz appears to assert rights equivalent to ownership to Unix based upon Sun's agreement with AT&T in 1992. Which is not the impression I got from Mr Vaughan-Nichols' piece. With that in mind, the article may, perhaps, seem rather less Slashdottable.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Wednesday Aug 08, 2007

Something must be done

Disparaging? Possibly. Disingenuous? Never in a million years.

Linux kernel maintainer Andrew Morton, reports ZDNet, was rather dismissive of OpenSolaris at LinuxWorld yesterday, inviting all to rally behind the cause of, er, monocultures.

Well, we don't expect Mr Morton to trumpet the great advances that OpenSolaris has made (which, not unreasonably, many in the GNU/Linux community are unaware of), and indeed, leading figures in the Linux community have in the past made even gloomier prognostications for Solaris.

But Mr Morton is right on the money (in the parlance of our times) with this comment:

It’s a great shame that OpenSolaris still exists...They should have killed it...They've fragmented the non-Windows operating system world and they continue to do so

Quite right. And let it not end there. Surely Sun might be further castigated for the UltraSPARC T2, which is continuing to fragment the non-Intel processor world. And it's a great shame that the Opera browser still exists, for they are continuing to fragment the non-Internet Explorer world. And let us not forget Gmail, which has fragmented the non-Hotmail world. And I really think it's time that O'Reilly pulled the plug on OSCON, fracturing, as it is, the non-LinuxWorld world.

Mr Morton also goes on to say that SystemTap will eventually have all the capabilities of DTrace. For reasons why that may not prove to be the case, you can have a look at Adam Leventhal's recent postings here and here.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Thursday Jun 14, 2007

Three Anniversaries

There are three anniversaries I'll be celebrating this week. First, it's 10 years since I joined Sun. My first job? Cold-calling customers who had stopped calling Sun. Yes, I was a tele-marketeer, and I can tell you, it is tough and thankless work. And so, whenever I get a tele-marketeer on the line at home, I try to be as sympathetic as posible while I tell them to get stuffed. Anyway, that was 1997 and I had just arrived in the Netherlands. I was looking for work and grateful for the opportunity, just as I'm grateful now that I could transfer with my family over to Sweden.

The second anniversary this week? OpenSolaris. It's 2 years today since it was launched on a suspecting public. As a user, I think the experience of an OpenSolaris distribution on the desktop is coming on in leaps and bounds. And although I don't want to dwell on the negative, I was pleased to hear Linus Torvalds talk about OpenSolaris this week, even if I don't especially like, or agree with everything he says. I think that contrasting his comments this week with those from February 2005 shows the relevance and success of OpenSolaris.

Let's hope he and Jonathan can have dinner soon.

Which brings me to my third anniversary: on the 21st, our daughter Emma turns one. There is a concept in philosophy called "qualia", such as yellowness, or the taste of coffee, the properties of the senses which seem irreducible and can only be described by themselves. I'd say that being a parent is similar: the feeling of parenthood can only be described, I am sure, by being a parent. I don't think that you know love, or fear, until you have a child.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Friday May 18, 2007


It is with regret that I read Sam Varghese's critical report of Sun this week, Solaris can never be Linux.  This wasn't just any old nonsense from a blogger posing as a jornalist after all, but the man, the Varg.  Is there a better writer out there?

An elegant wordsmith,
The latest bit of spiel which juxtaposes these words,

but always to the point,
If anything, trying to morph one in order to make it like the other will result in something that is neither fish nor fowl. And we all know what happens when things turn out that way.

with a fabulous command of literary references,
Statistics are often the refuge of scoundrels

and quick to forgive the failings of others,
To put it in his own words:"This paper emphasizes [sic] quantitative measures"

while maintaining his own high standards,
There is no hyberbole, no escessive putdown.

and, as always, in consummate good taste.
Microsoft: shades of Saddam Hussein.

So, when I read that whenever Mr Vaghese hears "the words Sun Microsystems and open source mentioned together [he] can't help but laugh", well, naturally, I'm concerned.  And Mr Vaghese deals out a proper savaging with his irresistable combination of astute observation,

Sun keeps talking about its dedication to the open source ideal and holding on to its code.

quality prose,
Last year, Sun was literally dragged kicking and screaming to the table to release Java under the GPL.

razor-sharp reason,
For years there have been calls to do this but Sun resisted. The act was finally done but who is interested any more?

And industry-insider prescience,
It isn't going to happen. Solaris isn't Linux and will never be anything like it.

No, few survive a mauling from the pen of Mr. Sam Vaghese and laugh it off.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Saturday Apr 21, 2007

It's Feisty, alright

Like many, I was tremendously excited to try the new Ubuntu release, Feisty Faun (7.04). So excited, perhaps, that I may have cut the usual corners, like backing up critical data on my laptop. Well, one gets so blase, doesn't one? The machine (an Acer Ferrari 4006) has Win XP on one partition, Ubuntu Dapper on the second and Solaris Express Developer Edition on the third.

Anyway, this morning I bravely plunged in with my freshly burned copy of Feisty, and hit the wall imemdiately. And this, really, is my error. So used have I become to Ubuntu practically installing itself that I was surprised that I actually needed to read instructions during the process. Unbelievable. After 20 minutes of swearing and repeatedly trying the same, failed operation, I read the instructions and actually specified my root partition as requested...and the rest was as easy as ever.

What I had not realised, however, was that the GRUB boot loader that a GNU/Linux OS installs does not work with Solaris. Naively, I had just expected to edit the GRUB menu from Ubuntu and bobs-your-uncle, triple boot again, as I have done so many times from the GRUB menu in Solaris. Not so. What I understand, having spent a thoroughly objectionable hour this morning (and naturally, entering into the same spirit myself) is that Linux's GRUB won't recognise the Solaris file system, which judging by the error messages I have researching (can one say regoogling?) this morning, adds up.

Anyway, I'm happy to say, came to the my rescue. If, like me, you upgrade a Linux partition on a machine with a Solaris partition, and, like me, you're an idiot, here is what I recommend you do:

0. (Because I forgot to) Write down the GRUB entry for your Linux image
1. Boot one of the OpenSolaris live CD distos (Belenix works very well)
2. Mount your Solaris root partition
3. Reinstall your original GRUB using /sbin/installgrub
4. Reboot into your Solaris environment and add the Linux entries to GRUB

Really, I was quite surprised that Ubuntu's GRUB doesn't support Solaris filesystems. Apparently the fix has been submitted to the GRUB project and will be integrated eventually...

Anyway, someone once said, experience is knowledge, everything else is merely information.

So, Feisty's up, and it's very impressive. It is fantastic to be able to apt-get Java packages, it's full of nice surprises (and naturally, one or two disappointments), and generally feels very polished indeed. I do, however, rate the chances of getting my Broadcom wireless card up on a ndiswrapper or getting Beryl up on my ATI card as slim-to-narrow, at least, not before bedtime.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

pps. if anyone manages a more cack-handed install than that, please do let me know

Thursday Mar 29, 2007

What if I do like brown?

I reckon I'm the first person ever to get a kicking on LugRadio for using Linux. But yes, I quite agree with Jono that you should eat your own \*\*\*ing dogfood (as he put it. I believe that the phrase used around here is that we "fly our own planes"). This is why I do boot Solaris Express, Ubuntu and Win XP on my laptop. Windows only to evaluate software and to use Second Life - the Linux Second Life client seemed flaky as you like to me.

Anyway, thanks for the clarification, chaps. Solaris Express definitely is ready. I'm using it almost exclusively for work, and Dapper for play.

Wednesday Mar 28, 2007

In defence of Red Hat (sort of) and trademarks

Is Red Hat Acting Like Microsoft? was the question posed by eWeek this, er, week, in relation to this blog, accusing Red Hat of distinctly Redmond-like behaviour. Specifically, Red Hat sent a cease and desist letter about the use of a trademark to a Mr Bill Dudney whose company is offering training courses on Hibernate, a Red Hat-owned JBoss product. Mr Neward concludes,

Folks, RedHat has officially moved into the "Big Corporate Entity Seeking Profit At Any Expense" category. So much for the Open-Source-Can-Really-Make-Money-Too-We-Swear poster child, if you ask me...

After appearing in the trade press, Mr Neward has gone futher, claiming that the issue isn't about the use of trademarks (which he sporadically confuses with copyrights and "IP issues", whatever they are), but that the use of the trademark "Hibernate" appears to denote a relationship with RedHat - which sounds like the use of a trademark to me.

Trademarks have really had a bad press recently. Naomi Klein's influential No Logo made trademarks (and brands) the object of ire for a generation disaffected with the evident results of globalisation. I don't hold with Ms Klein, thinking that sweatshops and extreme (and even mild) poverty and inequality are the things we should fight against and that free trade, in most forms, is a good thing (although I'm dubious about the coerced liberalisation of foreign capital markets). Of course, Ms Klein's book helps those in the west react against globalisation by giving them something near at hand and easily identifiable (by design) to attack: logos. In my view a better take on the potential harm of globalisation (from an economic perspective, rather than a cultural one), would be Joseph Stiglitz' fascinating Globalisation and its discontents.

As for trademarks which facilitate brands, they play an important economic role:

Trademark law... was not intended to promote any particular way of acting, but simply to enable buyers to know what they are buying. Richard Stallman

Some brands have, as we know, taken on their own cultural significance for better or for worse, but by and large they help us identify who we are doing business with and they help us hold them to account. And accountability is important, a point apparently lost on the three conference attendees who asked not to be identified in the eWeek article. (of course, anonymity is important too). Trademarks require a degree of policing. Google know this, as do DuPont (nylon) and Otis Elevators (elevators).

And why is accountability especially important to Red Hat? Open source represents, from a certain perspective, the liberalising of the software market. It vastly reduces barriers to entry for suppliers, and barriers to exist for users. This is a good thing. Given that a company is supplying open source software which is, in theory, able to be compiled to binary by any Tom, Dick or Harry, how do you differentiate? It's your trademark. That's the brand that certified your operating system is supported, and that applications are supported on your operating system. And that is the value that Red Hat brings to its customers and it's what their business is and it's why I agree with Mark Shuttleworth (and the rest of the known universe) that it will be tough for Oracle to fork Red Hat. I don't consider this anti-community. Open source is not a free-for-all: it is fair-for-all, and Red Hat surely have a right to their trademark without being labelled "seeking profit at any expense".

Although the actions of large competitors like Oracle might well explain why Red Hat are twitchier about their trademarks than might otherwise be the case, allegations that Red Hat is behaving like Microsoft are surely wide of the mark - they are behaving like a company who is concerned about the use of its trademark. There is such a thing as "fair use" of a trademark (whether or not it is applicable is lost on me though, not being a lawyer), but any question about the Red Hat's behaviour is about wisdom, and not morality. It is surely about the extent to which they are able to encourage a community for their technology at any (as perceived by them) expense of the integrity of their trademarks. Not something I'd know about.

What I do know is that there needs to be an open source equalivalent of Godwin's Law. As an open source companies mature, the probability of a comparison involving Microsoft approaches one.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer, I am not a lawyer and know nothing of trademark law (this is advice to no one), and I don't mean to specifically associate Microsoft with any totalitarian ideologies of the mid 20th Century.

Wednesday Mar 21, 2007

The map and the signpost

No disrespect to Microsoft employee Brad Abrams who makes a lot of good noises according to this article in Internetnews, but he makes the oft-repeated mistake (amplified by the reporting journalist) that open source style guru Eric Raymond's famous essay, "The Cathedral & the Bazaar" makes a simple distinction between proprietary software development (cathedrals) and open source development (bazaars).

During a morning keynote, Abrams declared that Microsoft is not the cathedral and that open source isn't really a bazaar when it comes to AJAX, a claim that undermines one of the core underpinnings of the open source movement...Among open source's many core tenants the book highlighted is that proprietary vendors such as Microsoft are closed, monolithic structures – the cathedral -- while open source operates in bazaar fashion where things are all done out in the open and with the community.

Those who have actually read Mr Raymond's essay (and I would tend to think that this includes only a minority of people who refer to it in conference keynotes) know that the distinction being drawn is actually between different project governance models and that they may apply to software development in any context: proprietary will tend towards cathedral-style development, but there are plenty of open source projects that follow the model too. It's neither a core underpinning, nor a core tenant.

The brilliance of Raymond's essay is, at least in part, that it uses a metaphor for the title which lets everyone feel they've understood it before they've read it. One might question Mr Raymond's views on politics, race, religion, firearms, sexuality and software package management, but he certainly understands a thing or two about marketing.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer




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