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2007: Open Source, Patents, SCO, And More

Looking Back

2007 is a year that will long be remembered in the open source and Linux communities. It was a year in which the twin underpinnings of what makes open source successful and what could serve to destroy it made the headlines.

On the pro side, Linux made major technology advances this year and a key new license emerged for open source. On the flipside patents and intellectual property issues continued to threaten the survival and success of the open source ecosystem.

GPL v. 3

The release of the GPL Version 3 was one of the most highly anticipated events of 2007. The GPL after all is the cornerstone license of the Open Source and Free Software world with countless thousands of projects under its license.

Work began on GPL version 3 in January of 2006 but it was in 2007 that the hard work of the final drafts were drawn out ultimately resulting in the final version. The GPL 2 was released in 1991 and the efforts and the issues involved in changing it were not insubstantial.

Though there were some 16 years of events that transpired between the release of GPL 2 and GPL 3 the authors of the GPL 3 blamed the Novell Microsoft deal of November 2006 for a delay in putting out the GPL 3 on time. The third draft which came out in March of 2007 specifically set out to prevent the "mockery of Free Software" which the authors of the GPL deemed the Novell/Microsoft deal to be.

In May the last call draft of the GPL was issued cleaning up language and making the license compatible with the widely deployed Apache 2.0 license. Finally in June, after 18 months of debate and discussion, the final GPL 3 license was released. With the final release which includes updated provisions for DRM as well as patents, Richard Stallman the founder of the Free Software Foundation and author of the original GPL urged adoption as a way to fight Microsoft.

"When Novell upgrades to versions of software covered by the GPLv3, GPLv3 will extend this patent protection from the customers of Novell to everybody who uses those programs," Stallman said at the time. "Effectively, we found a way to turn the deal against Microsoft and make it backfire."

Microsoft took notice soon thereafter and pledged not distribute GPL version 3 licensed code. Novell's CEO however argued that his company will distribute GPL Version licensed software, even to its customers that got their Linux distributions from Microsoft's Linux coupons.

Legal questions aside the new license was reasonably well adopted in its first 5 months of existence. Early predictions from licensing software vendor Palamida were that 5,500 projects would adopt the GPL version 3. As of December 6th, 2007 Palamida was reporting that some 1263 projects had actually converted to the GPL version 3. Among the high profile conversions are the Samba Windows to Linux file sharing utility as well as the popular SugarCRM application. Though Linux kernel developers discussed the potential for a conversion to GPL version 3, nothing came of it and the general sentiment is that it's not likely to happen either.

Patents, Patents and Microsoft

The GPL version 3 process was strongly influenced by Microsoft and its patents. While Microsoft has argued for years that Linux may infringe on Microsoft's intellectual property, it was in 2007 that Microsoft gave the infringements a number. Microsoft alleged that Open Source software infringed on some 235 of its patents. Steve Ballmer himself beat the patent drum telling people that Red Hat and others have an obligation to pay up.

Some did pay up.

Xandros, Linspire and TurboLinux all signed up for Microsoft's patent protection plan. The risk associated with patent infringement were all cited by IDC as a barrier to adoption for Linux.

At no time during 2007 did Microsoft actually name any of the patents. Some Microsoft executives did talk about interoperability and the need to build an IP licensing bridge with open source.

Microsoft itself crossed the bridge in 2007, the bridge to Open Source licensing. In October, Microsoft's Public License (Ms-PL) and the Microsoft Reciprocal License (Ms-RL) were blessed by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) as bona fide Open Source licenses.

Microsoft though wasn't the only company in 2007 to allege patent infringement in Open Source code. Patent holding firm IP Innovation alleged that Novell and Microsoft infringed on its intellectual property. IP Innovations has since stated that its legal challenge is not a challenge against Open Source itself.

SCO in a Coma

The poster child for Linux lawsuits and patent infringement, also known as SCO somehow managed to survive 2007. In 2006, we had predicted that end of SCO in 2007 due to a trial that was supposed to have happened this year.

No trial ever happened.

Instead SCO pleaded poverty, declared bankruptcy and tried to sell of its Unix business before creditors like Novell could get a piece of it.

Is SCO dead? Nope, looks like the company such that it is, will stick around till 2008

Linux Gets Both Real and Virtual

With all the talk of licensing and patents in the open source world of 2007, it's important to remember that the only reason why those issues are important is because Linux technology itself is thriving. This year marked the debut of a number of very significant Linux releases and technologies that impacted millions of users.

There were four mainline kernel.org Linux kernel releases in 2007 adding functionality across the whole set of computing requirements. The SuperBowl 2.6.20 kernel was the first of the year, kicking off with some virtualization enhancements. The 2.6.21 kernel was also highlighted by virtualization which was a strong theme overall for Linux in 2007. New memory management and a new wireless stack debuted in the 2.6.22 kernel. The 2.6.23 kernel marked the introduction of the completely fair scheduler which provides some real time capabilities for Linux.

Virtualization was a key theme for one of the biggest Linux distro releases of the year, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 (RHEL). RHEL 5 was the culmination of nearly two years of development for Red Hat and marked the first time that the Linux vendor included virtualization in its main enterprise release.

Though it didn't release a real time version in 2007, Red Hat did talk about a real timeand did announce a product (Red Hat MRG)which is set for a 2008 release.

Both Novell and MontaVista actually released new real time Linux distributions in 2007.

2007 was not however the year of the Linux desktop, though Linux did make some inroads in the consumer space. Dell began selling Ubuntu Linux and Wal-Mart offered Linux PCs on its shelves.

A lot can happen in a year, and a lot did in the open source space in 2007. From the legal challenges of patents and licensing to the technical challenges of virtualization and real-time, open source in 2007 laid the foundation for the challenges and triumphs to come in 2008 and beyond.