The Right Message, Wrong Subject

by Robert Cooper

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Ian Ferguson at ZD starts throwing fireballs with "Time for Linux bigots to take a back seat". There is a kernel of a point I agree with in here, but mostly he is just stooging.

That idealism unfortunately manifests itself most often in online diatribes against Microsoft, in particular, and proprietary software, in general.

Gartner analyst Brian Prentice said recently the "flaming Linux bigots" who were prone to hyperbole and religious debates to advance their cause actually impeded the growth of Linux and open source software.

Now, first off, I can't express how low my opinion of Gartner is as an organization. As a consultancy they are all but worthless and as punditry they represent a more transparent Cash-for-Media organization than anything of which Armstrong Williams could dream. Of course, the irony of talking about "flaming Linux bigots" and then criticising them for being "prone to hyperbole and religious debates" itself is not lost.

This is where there is a slight kernel of truth. Too often in the Linux community there is a gut level response that is anti-anything-outside-our-ideal. The whole GNOME project represents such a response: a backlash against KDE and its underpinnings in the Free-as-in-beer QT library. Of course, TrollTech GPLing QT didn't change their already formed religious beliefs. I still argue that KDE is the far superior dekstop on *nix for a number of reasons, but that doesn't stop GNOME from continuing. Indeed, the religious nature of GNOME in many ways continues to hurt the project. Continuous "framework" change before even a generation of apps is developed keeps it from having the kind of smooth user experience that people expect in a modern desktop.

There is also a NIH syndrome that is problematic. As great as the Beagle desktop search and Dashboard utility are, no one expects to see them make it into Fedora Core anytime soon, mostly because RedHat is loathe to give too much credit to Novell for a good product, even if it is "open source".

Moreover, I think the Linux communities' (a) rejection of Java on philosophical grounds and (b) lack of demand that Java get tier-one support as a desktop system on Java from Sun has held back more of their ideas than not. Sure, Java now tops, but I don't think that is terribly meaningful. I can't help but laugh that Linux distros don't seem to have much of a problem including the Flash plug in, for which Macromedia doesn't even make dev tools for Linux, yet there is still a holy war mentality.

That is the kernel of truth. The rest of Mr. Ferguson's argument, however, is complete bunk:

However, heading into the new year, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Linux and open source software community can ill-afford the luxury of diluting its message to business and government communities. While significant ground has been made this year in winning broader acceptance, most notably by in securing a level playing field in competing with proprietary software companies for lucrative government procurement deals, Microsoft for one is not taking the situation lying down.

Securing procurement is not "the message" of open source. That is the message of a company. RedHat, Novell, Microsoft all have that message. The "message" of open source is that options are good, you should not be held under the boot of your vendors and that the value of software is rarely the product, but the expertise to make it work how you want.
For one, the company's massive revamp of its security position two years ago -- requiring programmers to take training in secure coding -- is starting to pay off, with exploits of problems in Microsoft products coming down. This effort -- combined with the increasing frequency at which problems are being found with Linux and open source code -- is quickly undermining the Linux and open source community's argument that Microsoft software is high risk when compared to alternatives.

This argument always drives me nuts. Does "Linux" have security problems? Sure. For years BIND and Sendmail were nightmarish to keep updated. PHP and individual PHP apps have seen all kinds of security holes. The thing is, you need to compare apples to apples. Pretending that all of "Open Source" is the alternative to a Microsoft view is flawed. Fedora or SUSE come with no less than 12 email clients. Does a flaw in one of these count against the "Operating System"? How does that compare with a flaw in Outlook(/Express) that is the only option on a stock Windows install? Moreover, even thinks like the international domain name "exploit" in Mozilla doesn't really compare with the drumbeat of XSS, sandbox and ActiveX flaws we are pummeled with from Microsoft. No, we haven't gotten a Teardrop style exploit in a while, but how much damage did Slammer do? Judging incident counts is only part of security.

Secondly, Redmond is likely to step up its efforts to warn customers that deploying Linux and open source solutions could expose them to litigation over patent royalties arising from the use of shared code. (However, the effectiveness of this argument could be blunted if the so-called Open Invention Network -- a company formed by IBM, Sony, Philips, Novell and Red Hat -- is effective in its intention to buy up Linux patents and offer them royalty-free to Linux developers).

Is anyone taking the SCO thing seriously enough to even buy this FUD anymore. Yes, we need serious reform in the IP infrastructure in this country. However, there seem to be very few cases where this has become a real issue. Microsoft can say it, but that doesn't make it true.

In addition, Microsoft is likely to continue to aggressively protect its market share, leveraging its incumbency and size to ensure it loses as little ground as possible to its smaller rivals. The business cases presented by sellers of Linux and open source software -- both large and small -- are going to have to trump Redmond on value for money and fitness for purpose, as well as overcome the innate conservatism of information and communications technology purchasers. A tall order indeed.

Might I suggest reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar? If there is a manifesto to these flaming bigots, that would be it, and it would seem to me that half of the message goes directly to these points.

The message is pretty clear when it comes to the growth of Linux and open source software in Australia. The ideologues are going to have to fade into the background and keep their philosophical debates within the confines of the community while the sharp and commercially savvy deal with the hard reality of winning business contracts.

With even Schwartz explaining the value of Open Source in both terms of philosophy and economics, not to mention RedHat, Big Blue and Novell already there, I am not seeing the problem. Much like certain political pundits like to troll for what one whacko said somewhere on the internet to waive as an example of "the debate", Mr. Ferguson seems to be trolling the comments on Slashdot or Digg and assuming it actually represents anything important, rather than being the braying of adolescents and people ill informed enough to take it for serious dialog.


2005-12-06 11:23:57
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
It's difficult for me to see Java as useful for free software when it's so difficult to get a modern JVM for anything but Linux on x86 and when other proprietary projects such as Bitkeeper pull the rug out from free software projects.

How are those "merely" philosophical concerns?

2005-12-06 11:36:58
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
Umm, I have the Blackdown JVM running Tomcat on my Zaurus, and they have all but 1.5 available for SPARC, PPC. Works great.

Secondly, there is no restriction on JRE distribution, and unlike BitKeeper, Sun will even certify other compatible JVMs. That is perhaps the most specious comparison I can imagine.

Thirdly, to imply that Open Source isn't a core part of the Java community is truely laughable.

2005-12-06 12:04:35
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
Didn't Java 1.5 come out in late September 2004 and Java 1.4 in February 2002? The newest version of the JVM I can run on Linux PPC is for a version of the language almost four years old. That's not very good support.

Meanwhile I can use GCC, Perl, Python, Ruby, PHP, Pugs, GHC, and many other compilers and languages built from source and up to date as of the minute on just about any architecture I run.

Claim as much as you want that it's "specious" to compare one piece of proprietary software to another, but as long as Sun holds the right to change the license terms on the JVM (and charges so much to run the TCK that free software projects have little chance of ever being certified), it's possible that one day Sun will pull a Bitmover.

Is it likely? Maybe not -- but it's a risk that I personally am not willing to take.

2005-12-06 12:15:18
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
Well, I think you are overstating the import of 1.5. Even not most production stuff is still done on 1.3, and even the other JVMs: JRocket from BEA and IBM's are still at the 1.4 level.

Secondly, I think you are dated on the TCK and cert charges. Under much pressure from ASF those terms were specifically changed for free software projects long ago -- hence Geronimo's recent passage of the J2EE 1.4 TCK.

I pray that once Apache ships Harmony some of the license zealotry will start to die, but most of this -- including your comments -- seem like bad blood based on things that changed long ago -- again, not unlike the whole QT issue.

Yeah, Sun could change the license terms for the JRE. In fact they have done it 4 times by my count. Each time, however, relaxing the terms more. In terms of "Java" though, the JRE is a very small part of it now anyway, and Sun is not going to be able to change the "terms" of the JCP Specs.

2005-12-06 13:17:36
Uh, it took a couple of years before the Qt license was changed. In the meantime, the GNOME codebase had grown to a pretty serious project. What do you expect, that they throw all this code away and come running to KDE?

Get real.

That your flame isnít license-related doesnít make it any less political and distateful. That part of your article reads like a throw-back to the years when the desktop environment war was hot. The world has turned a couple times since; time to move on.

2005-12-06 13:35:44
No, I am not suggesting that GNOME should have been abandoned. The whole environment war, however, does represent something that set back the Linux desktop tech curve by at least a couple of years. The stuff was frankly too long coming because of "bad blood" issues. THAT is what should have happened sooner, not the abandonment of the GNOME codebase.

It is the same thing with the Java comments here. There is some "bad blood" mentality in there that is based on old holy wars it should be forgotten but isn't.

My point is, if there is a "bigotry" in the Linux world that is hampering it, it isn't the one implied by the ZD commentary. There is one much deeper that is letting shadows of the past inhibit the future.

2005-12-06 15:16:14
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
Despite absorbing the Blackdown project many years ago, Sun has failed to release a JRE for non-x86 Linux in a timely fashion. Perhaps Java 1.5 doesn't matter -- but if not, why release it? When will Java 1.5 come to Linux? When Java 1.6 comes out? 1.7? Will I still be able to get support if I'm not on the latest version? Will I still be able to get training? Can I run software that uses new features?

Also, the latest I remember seeing about the TCK was a "license" that allowed users to download and read the code but not run it. As much as some people would like to claim that this is a wink-wink, nudge-nudge endorsement of running the TCK against your own implementation, I have absolutely no interest in feeling the consequences of violating the license.

There's no Free version of Java I can run on my platform, there's no current free-as-in-beer version I can run, and there are plenty of alternatives in both categories with no single controlling commercial entity. Why do you consider these important facts as of 06 December 2005 merely "bad blood" and "license zealotry"?

2005-12-06 16:44:51
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
* A JSR's Spec License will include these compatibility rules:
1. Completely implement the specification.
2. No sub- or supersetting in the name space allowed.
3. Implementation must pass the TCK.
* All JSRs will allow for development and distribution of compatible independent implementations.
* These compatible independent implementations will be allowed to use an Open Source Software license such as for example the Apache license.
* All JSRs will make the TCK available separately from the RI.
* Expert Group members can withdraw contributions if the Spec Lead makes substantive changes to the business terms.
* No parallel copyrights grant to Sun when Sun is not the Spec Lead.
* TCK available free of charge to non-profits and qualified individuals.
* Provisions for governmental participation.

From the FAQ:

Which applies to everything after JSR-99 (2002), specifically for certifying Tomcat and Enhydra.

If there is no specific implementation available for your platform of choice, I would call that strange, but not impossible. I would assume that with GNU Classpath calling itself 95% complete on the 1.4.2 spec and Apache Harmony coming along quickly with major contributions from IBM and Intel, chances are that situation is changing.

I would also point out that in terms of "Single Controlling Commercial Entity" -- all Sun really owns now is its implementation of the JVM. Pretty much everything is now under the flag of the JCP, the executive committee of which contains at least 2 open source organizations an one individual and a list of companies that looks suspiciously like the OSDL members list.

2005-12-07 03:15:17
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
I'm running Java 1.5 on my PPC Ubuntu box. A beta version has been available for free download from IBM's website for months.
2005-12-08 15:16:46
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
Thanks for the update. If there's a good and free JRE for my platform in the future, I might consider developing in Java again.
2005-12-13 08:51:35
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
I, too, would love to see Java evolve into an acceptable Free Software alternative. Java seems to have so much going for it: IBM's promotional activities, "enterprise" acceptance, & a fairly good chances of programs running on Windows, Mac, and Linux (which matters to me, because I run Linux, my Prof.s run XP, and some of my collaberators have PowerBooks.) If Sun had made Java's licensing acceptable, I suspect Java could have become a defacto Linux standard. Eventually, Sun probably will get far enough. The thing is, the oppurtunity cost of the these lost years won't likely ever be regained. It feels like Sun wants to sit on a fence, with just one foot touching the ground at a time. Sometimes it is on my side, other times not. If Sun would just get off the damn fence they could easily become relevant. They have the talent. Where is the vision?
2005-12-13 09:15:41
The Rejection of Java for Free Software
"If you are going to contribute source code to GNU Classpath we must make sure that you have not studied the source code of the JDK/JRE or decompiled any of its classes. Furthermore you must not have signed any non-disclosure agreements with Sun or other companies in regard with java technology that might cover the core class libaries or tools."