RealTime IT News

Browsing, Open Source and Litigious Affairs

Best of 2006 Internetnews.com wades through the top stories and issues that rocked the industry in 2006 in this ongoing series.

Just as the year in open source was cruising to a finish in 2006 -- all gussied up in a neat bow for the year, November arrived with a splash to re-draw the whole map.

That's when Novell and Microsoft managed to get the tongues of hard-bitten long-timers wagging over the companies' deal to work together on interoperability of open source systems and Microsoft products, and address potential intellectual property litigation issues.

The November 2nd agreement, as influential as it is, wasn't the only major open source news in 2006. But it was a year that included litigation, or potentially litigious affairs.

The Linux kernel, the core component of the Linux operating system, saw five kernel releases this year (2.6.19 in November 2.6.18 in September, 2.6.17 in June, 2.6.16 in March and 2.6.15 in January).

Developers added thousands upon thousands lines of code, support for new processors, including Sun's Niagara, as well as support for IBM's Cell chip.

Linux kernel developers had their share of legal conversations in 2006. They discussed revisions to the GPL , the Free Software license under which the kernel is licensed. Plus, this was a year in which the first draft of GPL version 3 came out with a second draft as well.

The kernel is licensed under GPL version 2 and, according to both Linus Torvalds and the wider Linux kernel developer community, it would appear likely that the kernel will not be switching to version 3.

GPL version 3 introduces new language and provisions that protect again DRM (digital rights management) and patents. In light of the Microsoft Novell deal, discussion around GPL version 3 has only intensified as the need for patent protection has become even more self-evident.

It was also a pretty big year for the release of Firefox 2, which coincided with the release cycle for Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7.

Sure, Firefox is not directly affected by the Microsoft/Novell partnership, but Mozilla does have its own share of legal issues to deal with. This year, Mozilla decided to be more strict at enforcing its trademarks around Firefox, which incited a standoff with the Debian GNU Linux distribution and the IceWeasel fork of Firefox.

Other distributions, notably Red Hat's Fedora Core (FC 6 and FC 5) and OpenSUSE (version 10.1 and 10.2 this year) had no such issues with Mozilla.

Patents and the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) surrounding them have affected all Linux distributions this year. And that brings us back to the year's defining news event in the open source industry: the Novell Microsoft deal.

The agreement, valued at $348 million , includes interoperability agreements between Microsoft and Novell, which aren't particularly contentious. The real issue is about the patent covenant between Novell and Microsoft, which insinuates that somehow certain open source components infringe on Microsoft's intellectual property.

Novell has argued that no such implication was suggested by its agreement with Microsoft, though many in the open source community, including Samba developers, disagree.

The dark cloud of patent reprisal by Microsoft against Non-Novell open source users looms large over the open source landscape as 2006 draws to a close.

Yet, it's important to remember that legal issues and open source have long gone hand in hand. Open Source is, after all, fundamentally enabled by open source licenses, which legally allow users and developer to view, utilize, modify and distribute applications.

Though legal issues may raise the FUD quotient, it was the legal premises of open source that made many projects work in 2006. All that was cruising along fine until the Novell/Microsoft deal came along. Now, the industry has some thinking to do as the new year in open source peeks around the corner.