Tag Archives: GPL

Business Open Source Productivity

Oh no, not a ‘Best of’ collection?

Well, yes – and my apologies if you’ve already seen these.  In celebration of the new blog and before I’ve polished any new entries for it – I often write & refine my posts over several sessions, I find the content is better that way – I thought I’d flag up three posts from this blog that I’m particularly satisfied with, and that I think resonated well with people.

  1. Work 2.0 – the interruptible programmer
  2. How to make decisions
  3. My evolving view of open source licenses

Hope you enjoy!

Development Open Source Windows

Microsoft, the good open source citizen

ms_haloWhat a difference a few years can make. For a long time, Microsoft was seen as public enemy #1 of those who liked to promote, produce and consume open source (I’m deliberately not describing it as a ‘movement’ here – that implies political motivations which I assert that only a vocal minority have). It was entirely their own fault of couse; blustery, really quite bizarre tirades from the only two CEOs their company has ever had cemented their position as the McCarthy’s of the modern era. It wasn’t helped, of course, by extremists on the opposite end of the spectrum, but still – the way the company behaved in previous years has at times been utterly shameful.

The reason it wasn’t sustainable is that they started to lose the very people they’ve always done a pretty good job of nurturing – developers. Even reasonable, level headed developers who have few extremist tendencies but who could see the many benefits of open source  (I count myself among them) began to turn away from the company as they seemed hell-bent on protecting their vested interests using whatever means possible, and irrespective of the collatteral damage – mostly through lies and threats.

I developed my early career around the time that Microsoft was rising, with their software replacing the mainframes and minis that were so tricky to work with at times, and I really appreciated them for it. They made my life easier as a developer in the 90’s. In the new millennium though, when they started rattling sabres over open source, and trying to bind me and my products into ever more of a restricted, Microsoft-only environment, they did precisely the opposite. The notion that you could use their really nice tools, so long as you only targetted Windows & Office, and with constant posturing over whether using open source was ‘communism’, drove me and probably plenty of other developers in precisely the opposite direction.

For as long as Steve Ballmer is in charge, I’ll have a healthy amount of skepticism about whether Microsoft can really, genuinely change its stance at its core. Like Bill Gates before him, these are agressive 80’s-style businessmen who  I can never hope to understand or remotely trust. But what’s clear is that either he’s learned how out of step he is with his potential customers, or he has been forced by others in the company to accept a changing stance on open source.

2009 is for me the year that Microsoft became a regular citizen of the open-source environment. Sure, before that they set up Port25 and CodePlex, but these were mostly self-serving and didn’t necessarily demonstrate MS’s ability to play well with others, which is precisely what open source is about. What really changed in 2009 is that Microsoft began to use external open source, intentionally and unintentionally, and crucially played it squarely by the rules with little or no fuss. This is a very big deal.

One of the first steps was Visual Studio using jQuery, which is entirely sensible. Historically Microsoft has had a terrible tendency to reinvent the wheel unnecessarily, which ends up being more hassle for everyone. Re-use of mature components for everyone’s benefit is what open source is about.

This year though, Microsoft has issued code under the GPL, something I’m sure many people thought would never happen. Firstly there was contributing code to Linux for Hyper-V, and most recently they (unintentionally) used some GPL code in a USB/DVD boot tool for Windows 7, an issue that was raised by a third party but which on investigation Microsoft confirmed – leading them to commit to releasing the full code under the GPL to customers.

Of course, this is precisely what they are bound to do legally. But the fact that it is being resolved in an open and completely unemotive manner, in the same way that any other responsible company would deal with it, is quite significant. This is Microsoft, the company that said the GPL was anti-American and borderline communist – openly and contritely resolving a GPL issue in the correct way with no sleight-of-hand or posturing. I respect that a great deal.

Welcome back to the community Microsoft, it’s about bloody time. Congratulations to all the reasonable people inside the corporate beast who are finally managing to turn the supertanker. I really hope you convince Ballmer to retire soon though, he’s a relic of a bygone age and an impediment to the new image you’re trying to create.

OGRE Open Source Personal

My evolving view of open source licenses

smallprintI’ve been involved in open source for a long time – probably what might be considered a ‘generation’ in this industry. I was a fan of open source before I even knew the term existed – during my formative coding years in the early 90’s I was always releasing code for free and encouraging people to tell me why it sucked, and doing the same for them. Of course, most of the discussion went on over FidoNet, BBS-relayed emails, the very early (pre-WWW) internet and code on FTP sites, but the principle was much the same.

It was only when I needed a host for an increasingly large 3D engine I’d been writing in 2000 (which later became the earliest version of OGRE) that I discovered Sourceforge and open-source licenses. At that stage, I didn’t really care much about the minutae and just went with what seemed the most popular choice – the GPL. Fairly soon after this was revised to LGPL because it was clear GPL wasn’t a flexible choice for a library. Over the years I formed the opinion that the LGPL was a good balance for what I was doing – it allowed use in proprietary applications but required that modifications to the open-source part were passed on; and this also, I thought, encouraged contributions back to the core since it’s simpler to have your changes promoted. The downside was that the license is pretty long and full of legalese, and frequently needed explaining & clarifying. Still, I considered that a necessary cost of a license that ‘protected the interests’ of the open source project. I had considered more permissive licenses like zlib and MIT to be too weak –  giving everything away with no conditions encouraging reciprocal contributions or participation.

I only really started to seriously question this long-held opinion recently, shortly after I had to deal with a license violation issue. The details of this are irrelevant (and will not be discussed here), the important thing is that after all the dust had settled, it really made me sit down and take a long, hard look at what open source licenses actually achieve in practice, and which bits I felt were the most important for sustaining my projects.

Purist free software advocates subscribe to the view that all software should be ‘free’ (as in speech), which is, when you boil it down, a philosophical principle. While the intention is often genuinely altruistic – enablement for all developers and users of software – in a practical sense it is also a highly prescriptive, black-and-white approach. Free software licenses like the GPL restrict as much as they enable, on the basis that not to do so would deny future users of the flexibility to alter the software. It’s an understandable point of view, if very hacker-oriented, but it’s not one that I personally sign up to. I’m not involved in open source as a ‘movement’, in order to ensure that all users have access to all the source code of every application they use. Instead, I’m involved in open source because I think it’s a damn good way to get good software written for the benefit of the many, particularly infrastructural elements that can then be used to innovate faster, by smaller teams, to challenge incumbents, and generally shake things up. I’m a firm believer that open source and proprietary software can be good bedfellows, and that each can benefit the other – open source providing solid foundations for proprietary innovation, and proprietary software contributing to the open source projects underpinning it, in terms of code and funds. In that context, the restrictive elements of the LGPL seemed well-placed – the LGPL allows proprietary use, but modifications had to be passed on.

But, after much consideration and hard self-questioning in recent weeks I realised something important. Of all the people that have contributed to OGRE over the years, I can’t think of a single good code contribution that has come about because the license conditions encouraged it. All of the people who have made a significant positive contribution to OGRE have done so because they chose to do so. Either because they wanted to do it for fun, or because they saw that it was in their own interests as users, they sent patches in, created new add-ons, joined the team etc. None of these people required any coersion from a license to do what they did, and all the better for it – because they chose to do it, they tended to be more forthcoming in terms of adhering to standards, answering questions about their contribution, and generally participating in the community rather than just doing a minimal code-dump.

The other thing I considered was the impact of someone modifying OGRE and not publishing their changes. On the one hand, this is a potential for a lost contribution, but in practice the LGPL conditions are only to pass on the source to others, not to contribute back to the core project (which requires a contributor agreement anyway), and as mentioned we’ve already established that the best contributions are from willing sources anyway. Then comes the principle of whether it matters that the end user is not guaranteed to see the modified source of OGRE – free software principles say this is not right, but I have to say that in practice, most end users don’t care and in practice it’s of little consequence for OGRE. Obviously many people in the free software camp would disagree strongly with this. It’s more of an issue in enterprise apps where a customer who receives a significantly customised application from a vendor, and needs to keep maintenance in mind; IMO regardless of whether the software is based on open source the customer should be insisting their vendor delivers source anyway – that’s what contracts are for. But I digress.

So, after much thought I concluded that the most useful pay-backs to an open source project, and thus its community, from a user (in my opinion) were:

  1. Code & documentation contributions – which based on my experience come from voluntary sources
  2. Community participation – forum support, bug reports etc
  3. Publicity.

The ‘restrictive’ elements of the LGPL (and GPL), to which so much confusing license text is dedicated, didn’t seem to contribute to any of those except number 3, and then really just as a side-effect.

It was at this point that I realised that my previous opinions about permissive licenses not providing enough safeguards against exploitation for an open source project were off-base. In practice, open source projects don’t really need protection, because their best contributors are going to be there regardless (yes, I realise the GPL provides more protection to end users who want to get at the source code, that’s not what I’m considering here). ‘Freeloaders’ – people who use or modify the open source project for their own ends but give no code or community contribution back – are always going to exist; even under the GPL it’s easy to freeload, if you make your money from hosting services for example, and thus license choice has little impact on the scale (if not the nature) of the freeloading. Besides the annoyance of ‘that guy took my work and made some money out of it’ – which you have to accept as an inevitable outcome of going open source, so stick to making proprietary software if that bugs you – freeloaders have little negative effect on an open source project, and actually their use can contribute positively to item 3 (publicity). The key is to recognise that in practice you can really just ignore freeloaders, and instead concentrate on maximising the positive contributors in your community.

So, if we acknowledge that the people whose contributions we actually want are those who contribute voluntarily, regardless of license, we quickly come to the conclusion that all that really matters is the size of the community. It’s a fair assumption that for a given project there is a relatively stable percentage of users who will choose to contribute back (the percentage itself varies per project, but is fairly stable per project in my experience), therefore the easiest way to increase your contributors is to just increase your user base. Forget about trying to coerce people into being ‘good’ members of the community, just trust that the percentage will be there and will track your overall numbers.

One way in which to attract more users is to make the licensing simpler and more easier to understand. Programmers hate legalese, and a simple, clear license is bound to be more attractive than our LGPL (with static link exclusion), plus OUL option. It’s for this reason that from OGRE 1.7 we’re switching to the MIT License.

I’d like to thank Matt Asay for his post on the subject, which really jump-started my thought processes on this subject in the last few weeks. This whole process has been a reminder to me that it’s always good to re-examine your previous assumptions and opinions in the light of practical experience, and to be prepared to reach different conclusions than you did before. The whole open source landscape is constantly changing and maturing, why should those of us immersed in it be any different?

Open Source Windows

MS breaks the sixth seal?

Quick check – ok, the sun is in fact not as black as sackcloth. But today, something earth-shattering happened – Microsoft has contributed code to Linux.

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that I’d never live to see the day this happened. It’s 20,000 lines of driver code to make Linux run better under Hyper-V, which is of course in their interest (since you have to buy a copy of Windows Server 2008 as the host) , but that’s par for the course for open source contribution (you scratch your own itch!), and it’s a massive watershed regardless. From what I hear there’s still a lot of concern at Microsoft about how to manage contributions across the company boundary (in both directions), so I’m not sure what extra procedures they would have put in place for the developers involved in this process to keep the corporate legal army satisfied – perhaps pre- and post-project selective mind-wipes 😉 – but the fact that they managed to make it happen is a big deal.

Microsoft has wielded by far the most acrid rhetoric about open source in the past – we all hear that it’s changing, and I know particularly of specific people at Microsoft (mostly developers) who take a much more open view, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that while the top brass who set the ‘old’ policies remain in situ, substantive change will be difficult. But this move is one of many lately that make me think that just maybe, people higher up the chain are starting to get it. Or at least, they’re starting to defer to people who know better.

I’d argue that very few people in the open source community are inherently anti-Microsoft, they’re just a little more free-thinking when it comes to technology choices, a little more honest with their opinions, and have come to view MS as ‘the enemy’ primarily because of the old rhethoric the company used to use on a regular basis to attack them (and some parts of the company still don’t seem to be getting the ‘openness’ memo – as TomTom found to their detriment). Microsoft, or rather, Mr Gates and Mr Ballmer specifically, effectively made themselves the enemy of the open source community with their often ill-conceived tirades, and that’s something that will take a long time to heal. But, as we all know, actions speak louder than words – and if the company continues to make these kinds of conciliatory moves, they will start to win people in the open source community back, at least those people that judge on facts rather than old predjudices.

Trust takes a long time to be earned, particularly from where MS started from, so it’ll be a long road – but if this is how things are going to develop in future, then bon voyage, MS.