Opening up drivers for consumer devices, and other conversations from LinuxWorld

by Andy Oram

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Last night I was discussing with friends what could be the biggest
barrier (or at least the biggest technical barrier) to Linux
desktop adoption: the refusal of consumer device manufacturers to
release specifications that allow the community to develop drivers.

It's clear that people are increasingly seeing computers as just tools
to interact with a colorful and sublimely noisy world; they love their
digital cameras and scanners and videos and music files. So for Linux
to move out of the basic black storage cabinet in the air-conditioned
back room and onto the desktop, drivers for all these devices have to

So the four of us batted around several strategies for forcing
manufacturers to open up, which became more and more extreme and
unprintable as the drinks went down in our glasses. We talked about
manifestos and boycotts and appealing to the European Union. But I
like best a campaign that I suggested: asking the stores and web sites
that sell consumer devices to post lists of devices that have open
source specifications. This is like putting nutritional information
(or in Europe, notification of genetic engineering) on food packages,
except that I wouldn't expect governments to require it.

If enthusiasts for open source operating systems wrote a bunch of
retailers and just asked for signs and web pages saying "Open source
specifications available: Foo-Device 808A, 1001D, 1022X..." it would
accomplish several things. It would show the extent of public support
for opening up the specs, make retailers aware of the issue (and aware
that they could quiet people down by making a minimal concession),
reward cooperating device manufacturers with publicity, and--not least
in importance--bring media attention.

We shouldn't compromise on the definition of open source here: no
binary-only portions should be tolerated, and every advertised feature
should be available to open drivers.

Why aren't the manufacturers already releasing their specs?
Occasionally they say it's because somebody could abuse the device and
do something dangerous, particularly where wireless spectrum is
concerned. Personally, I feel that the Supreme Court "Betamax"
philosophy should hold: manufacturers should give the public powerful
and useful instruments and the public should be held responsible for
their use. (After all, nobody has suggested banning lasers, even
though their effect on air travel is much more dangerous than what
people could do with wireless devices.)

In addition to the concern for misuse, manufacturers may harbor vague
worries about releasing trade secrets. They have to be persuaded that
secrets hurt sales.

People like to set Microsoft up as the big nemesis for open source,
but I think it's more positive-minded and ultimately productive to
look at the companies the open source has to deal with--and that could
be our allies.

A few reports on companies

I found out a bit more today about
MySQL Network,
which naturally makes one think of Red Hat Network and shows some of
the same concern for offering something extra to those willing to
license open source software. Without changing a single character of
the source code, MySQL AB offers its licensed customers a faster and
more robust product than they could get through a download (unless
they employ their own experts to recompile it). Through tweaking
compile-time options, testing on various operating systems, and
certifying results, MySQL AB can reassure customers that their
database engines will run fast and stay up. This goes along with a
Knowledge Base, an advisory system for security alerts, and various
other standard elements of software support.

A head's up: the next MySQL conference (which O'Reilly is running)
takes place in Santa Clara, CA this coming April, and early
registration ends February 28.

Emic Networks
continues to grow and roar ahead with a clustering solution for MySQL
and Apache. They point out that you can use their clustering solution
without switching to a different database storage engine as MySQL's
clustering solution does. (I gave my own review of MySQL Cluster in a
from last year's MySQL Conference.)
Emic now offers a console for convenient management of their clusters,
and plans to move in the direction of integrating the management with
other logging and monitoring subsystems so you can use the same
familiar tools that you use for the rest of your system

Radiant Data
is also in the clustering business, offering an interesting filesystem
called PeerFS. Any system--even the laptop they were using as a demo
at the show--can participate as a peer in a continuously synchronized
network running Ethernet, Fibre Channel, or iSCSI. If somebody updates
a file on one system, it is quickly updated on all the others. PeerFS
exchanges all the locking information as well as incremental data
changes to keep files up-to-date and uncorrupted. Their demo shows two
systems running autoincrements on a MySQL table, and properly sharing
the index. Kids, this is something you can try at home.

While many companies tried to find niches in the MySQL ecosystem at
LinuxWorld, Oracle and Sybase of course were present too.
is building on their established customer base in Wall Street,
government, and Asia, and is offering migration tools to companies
trying to get off various systems that Sybase regards as obsolete (but
that I will be too polite to list here). Also, a
Standish Group report (PDF)
promoting Linux mentioned last year that Sybase delivers "the most
economic performance" on both Linux and Windows.

Speaking of migration, I dropped by the
booth to find out why their Linux Migration Agent won the Best
Integration Solution award at LinuxWorld. What's cool seems to be that
you don't have to load software on any desktop to migrate bookmarks,
address lists, and other user preferences--all you do is insert a CD
that describes what you want migrated. You can do the migration from
Windows to Linux on a single system or move the Windows settings to a
Linux operating system running on a different computer.

had a booth the size of a city (probably because their headquarters
are local). In addition to promoting the Novell Linux Desktop and
other SUSE-based operating systems, they were focusing on their
traditional identity products, which support single sign-on and
various administrative conveniences. One of these earned another of
LinuxWorld's much coveted product excellence awards. Companies
struggling to comply with Sarbanes-Oaxley take note: you can use Nsure
Audit to log a wide range of user access data to a central facility.

Sarbanes-Oaxley was on the minds of many vendors at the conference,
which I assume means that customers are worried about it too. For
claims that their system for distributing and keeping track of updates
not only speeds up this onerous task, but provides evidence that one
has conformed to the software security requirements in

I have written in other blogs that storage and backup are key concerns
for large organizations, and are becoming more and more a concern as
the volume of data goes up. One interesting response to this has been
the release of a new version of an SSH implementation by
SSH Communications Security.
This is the company that developed the original SSH implementation,
known as OpenSSH and their proprietary implementation SSH Tectia
remains compatible with the ssh2 run by Linux users everywhere. But
the company has managed to speed it to the point that their customers'
data transfers take only one-third as long as they did on their
previous version.

Last (as they are alphabetically) but not least,
Zend Technologies
is evangelizing PHP 5.0 in the expectation that its object-oriented
capabilities will interest more and more companies to build
mission-critical applications on PHP; they definitely want to move up
the enterprise ladder. While PHP will always be a scripting language
and will therefore lack certain assurances that Java or C# offer the
programmer, it is very easy to learn and offers some pretty powerful
features, such as a simple API for Web Services and even SAP access.

LinuxWorld Boston summary

This LinuxWorld was definitely smaller than the New York City ones (as
well as the San Francisco one, of course) but was solid and
successful, at least for O'Reilly. I saw a few new things, but mostly
the show revealed some jockeying on familiar tracks: companies
striking partnerships and incrementally improving their offerings.

Other blogs I wrote from this conference: