The friendly software patent, and other news from LinuxWorld

by Andy Oram

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Here are the major topics in the buzz I heard during two
days at


Recent experiments have suggested that clusters containing
dozens or even thousands of computers could be applied to a
lot of everyday business problems, not just the high-profile
scientific experiments people used to talk about. (The same
goes for grid computing, which Linux Magazine and others like
to call Extreme Linux when it's applied to the GNU/Linux
operating system.) No wonder this theme all over LinuxWorld.

Naturally, hardware vendors are hoping to boost their bottom
lines by satisfying these CPU-intensive applications.
president Hector Ruiz sees it as a major market and
celebrates some victories there. The
Altix 3000 cluster--which is based on
Itanium 2 chips and is claimed to transfer data between
computers "in as little as 50 nanoseconds"--won a
best-of-show award.


While the "Linux is ready for the enterprise" theme is old
news, "Linux desktops are ready for the enterprise" is worth
talking about. Recent versions of
have impressed lots of people; they are attractive and
modern in their interfaces, and handle Microsoft formats

KDE and
have both stabilized and are sponsoring projects to make
their back-ends and behavior more compatible, thus easing
the pain of developers who want to write applications for
both. Several vendors base their pitches on integration of
free-software desktops and Microsoft products in the office.

(Nevertheless, I'm not expecting Linux for the masses any
time soon, except in consumer devices and perhaps in limited
kiosk-type environments.)

64-bit chips

Another favorite of hardware vendors, but not them alone.
Jon "maddog" Hall believes 64-bit address spaces will
transform computing, because programmers can greatly
simplify and speed up their algorithms when they no longer
have to worry about running out of virtual address space.

It's still hard for the average computer user to imagine
running a 64-bit system, but then, Windows was designed for
16-bit systems that have long since finished the stage of
oxidation. The buzz about 64-bit chips intersected the buzz
about Linux desktops a couple times, with speakers
predicting that 64-bit chips would soon become
cost-effective on personal computers and that people would
find ways to make use of their speed.


The news from this front is alarming and encouraging at the
same time. Several spokespeople for the free software
movement indicated that software patents will not go away.
The intransigence of the U.S. government and the momentum
behind patents ensures that we will have to live with them.

This does not mean, however, that the freedom to code will
be gradually eaten away by patent-holders. We can still
negotiate with proprietary computer companies. The situation
is a little like the current state of copyright, as I
suggested in an
published just yesterday: the laws and courts are on the
side of intellectual property restrictions but the long-term
interests of the companies may be aligned with freedom.
Thus, the free software movement can ask companies to do
what Red Hat has done and promise
not to enforce any patent rights against free or open source software.

We hope thus to compromise with companies that value the
contributions made by free software. With a promise to live
and let live, they can preserve good relations with the
communities building free software while still enforcing
patents against companies that use their technologies in
proprietary software. If this practice becomes widespread,
one can imagine proprietary software companies complaining
about the unfair advantage that patents give to free

Free software in government

This theme provided fodder for a whole track at LinuxWorld.
Major companies such as
are meeting with agencies all the time to promote open
source solutions and counter such hackneyed misconceptions
as "You can't care very much about it if you've made it

There was a lot of interest in
Security-Enhanced Linux,
the astonishing system donated to the public by the National
Security Agency. The free software community accurately
promotes what open source can do for governments, but talks
less about governments can do for open source. This is an
important part of the battle, because the NSA has bowed to
unspecified outside pressure and announced it won't be doing
any more free software.


Linux Professional Institute
reports an enormous increase in the number of registrations
for its tests; in the past year it's gone from a few dozen a
month to several hundred. And the room was full when tests
were offered free at the conference.
is developing its own certification program by adopting the
LPI exams and adding one devoted to UnitedLinux material.

Perhaps people seek labels to pin on their lapels during the
difficult job searches that go on in a recession. But one
must still ask: why Linux? My answer harks back to what I
called an old story, "Linux is ready for the enterprise" and
they are the ones demanding formal credentials.

Those are the topics that seemed hot. I also know one topic
at LinuxWorld that was not hot:

Embedded systems

The advertisement for LinuxWorld I got a couple months ago
included an Embedded Linux Pavilion to "display the latest
products and services from embedded Linux vendors." By the
time of the show, both the Pavilion itself and the paragraph
devoted to it in the brochure had vanished.

I could not find anyone to explain what happened, but the
recent financial difficulties of embedded Linux vendors
tells the story all too clearly. I sense that not only
individual vendors are being struck down. Linux is gradually
being adopted by embedded system developers, but not as
quickly as many people expected. I think the stagnation is
temporary and that Linux will prove valuable in a wide range
of devices (particularly those attached to networks, people
tell me).

So LinuxWorld taught me a lot. I got several valuable
demos. But of course there were annoyances as well. Some
speakers simply recycle what's been in the trade press for
the past six months; most vendor pitches recycle facts that
attendees could find by staying at home and looking at the
vendors' web sites. When I ask a technical question, being
handed a sales sheet with marketing buzz is not a sufficient

And the flashing lights, the blaring music, the macho
big-screen ads dig under my skin after a day or so. I was
thankful to get free of it all and concentrate on a novel by
Virginia Woolf in the relative repose of the train back to
Boston. Why, I thought, do trade shows have to be so
assaultive? Why can't they convey their points through
subtle allusions like an upper-class English dinner party?

And just as rumor had it, Mildred--faithful old
Mildred!--had come to the show, and brought her new traffic
analysis tool to chatter about. Emily must certainly talk to
Mildred. But Mildred had been horrid to her, simply horrid
at the previous show, trying to claim that her traffic
analysis tool performed just as well as Emily's, when even
Frank said no, there was simply no comparison, that Emily's
provided ever so many more points of analysis, but here was
Mildred among the astroturf carpeting and the plastic palm
trees in molded granite square pots, saying, "Dear Emily!
What did you think of Helen's presentation on her web
configuration package?" And Emily must speak, and with hands
aflutter answered, "Enchanting, as always, of course--but
dear me, isn't it rather tedious always to be playing up the
cross-platform aspects of the tool year after year?
Although one must make allowances for her age, of course."
And Mildred answered, "My thoughts exactly! We do have
something of a confluence of ideas, Emily, we always have. I
must complement you on the choice of an EJB vendor in your
recent announcement. Why, we made the exact same choice when
we brought out our product a year ago." And scandalously,
Matthew was right next to the booth, he could hear the whole
exchange, slinking, ungainly Matthew who claimed to be an
audiovisual expert but could barely keep his eyeglasses
straight on his nose, who had to get her cabled up right
away or she would never be able to show her Impress slides
for her presentation, and she quickly answered Mildred,
"Indeed, we made the same choice. Wasn't it terrible, the
memory leak brought in by that package? We fixed our product
right away, of course."

No, I suppose I can't expect a LinuxWorld like that. I'm
catching up on some sleep; see you at the next show.

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