Big software struggles with open source
April 12, 1999
by Jason K. Krause
(IDG) -- Apple, Sun, Netscape and a number of software heavies have shucked their corporate monkey suits to wrap themselves in the open-source flag. However, the premise of open-source code development is at odds with the way these companies do business.
The idea behind open-source software is to make code available for download so developers can use and improve it – to the benefit of both the developers and the product.
In fact, if you go to Netscape's Mozilla.org site and do a search to see who's checked out code in recent months, every one of the e-mail addresses come from a netscape.com domain. Last week, Jamie Zawinski, the founder of Mozilla.org (the group of programmers working on the open-source rewrite of Netscape's browser) quit both Netscape and Mozilla.org, acknowledging on his Web site that Mozilla had "remained a Netscape project." Zawinski also wrote: "open-source does work, but it is most definitely not a panacea … you can't take a dying project, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of 'open source' and have everything magically work out."
When Mozilla was introduced a year ago, some developers were predicting that Netscape 5.0 would be ready by December 1998. Now, largely because of a confused Netscape road map, the launch is slated for this spring.
Nevertheless, allying yourself with the populist (and anti-Microsoft) open-source movement continues to be a great way to improve your company's image. The most recent open-source bandwagon-jumpers are Sun and Apple, companies new to the business of sharing technology. Their new tactic has many developers cheering the greater availability of the companies' code.
But once developers examine the licensing agreements these companies ask them to sign, their support weakens. Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project, creator of the code from which Linux was built, pored over the Apple license after it was posted online. "Apple has grasped perfectly the concept with which 'open source' is promoted, which is 'show users the source and they will help you fix bugs,'" he writes in an e-mail. "What Apple has not grasped – or has dismissed – is the spirit of free software, which is that we form a community to cooperate on the software."
For its part, Sun announced early in December 1998 it was creating a "community source" initiative. The initiative gives away the code for Java and Jini but requires developers to pay Sun when they ship products based on that code.
It seems that some developers are unhappy with the conditions Sun places on licensees. "We know there are significant problems with the latest release of Java, but to fix them means you have to accept Sun's onerous license," says Rick Ross, a Java developer and a founder of the Java Lobby, a developer's coalition. "The big question is, 'Why the hell am I going to help a company like Sun or Netscape?'"
Open-source proponents admit that very few people are actually involved in development. "I think there's always a core team around any open-source project that does the majority of actual implementation into the code base," wrote Brian Behlendorf, founder of the open-source server software Apache, in an e-mail. "On the Apache server the core team duties are distributed among 20 or so people, but only six to eight are active at any point in time. Most other projects are somewhere in between – and I actually don't think a single project could do well with a huge number of 'core team' members."
Open source does have certain practical benefits for large software companies. Chris Nelson of Mozillazine has documented a number of outside hackers who have added functionality to Mozilla, like XML support, and more enhancements are on the way. More than a thousand people have downloaded Sun's Java code, potentially adding to the Java brain trust.
When Netscape finally releases Communicator 5, proponents say, the input of outside developers will be apparent with support for a half-dozen or more new technologies, as well as software versions for various operating systems that might otherwise have been hard for Netscape to support right off the bat. But given the roundly positive reviews that greeted Microsoft's release of Internet Explorer 5 last week, Mozilla probably needs all the help it can get.
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