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03.31.11

Software Freedom Perspective: 2006-2011

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 5:28 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Looking

Summary: A look back at 5 years of Open Source, Linux, and Techrights

The way people perceive Free/libre and open source software has changed over the years, probably in line with various developments, both psychological and technical. Techrights, which was formerly focused only on Novell, has existed since 2006 and during that time a lot of things have changed when it comes to the way people communicate and the way companies interact with software which is free to share. In this post there is a personal perspective on what has happened over the years. It may not be entirely objective and it should be treated merely as one perspective among many. The goal is to explain what changed in the way Free/libre software is marketed, fought against, and covered on the sites across the Internet. This post was written on the train (expect typos) with aim of explaining to oneself why things progressed the way they have and by highlighting trends from different years (with succession of trends), it will hopefully become obvious how the world moved from coverage about great software to distracting matters like patents, from discussion about Open Source in business to Fog Computing and other marketing hype, and lastly from Linux enthusiasm to fanfare around Android, Ubuntu, etc.

2006

This year was a rather special one for Open Source. At no time beforehand was there so much promise in store for companies which always characterised themselves as being “open source”. Venture capitalists also invested record sums of money in companies which could be labeled Open Source. From the point of view of GNU/Linux as a viable desktop platform, things seemed quite positive. Compiz had arrived and it offered something unique to GNU/Linux — something which the competition simply did not have at the time (although test builds of Windows Vista showed some sort of rudimentary 3-D effects like “flip mode”). On the server side companies like Novell and Red Hat did fairly well and constantly grew their reach as well as market share. Only later in the year did Novell do the unthinkable and announced that it had negotiated a patent deal with Microsoft for almost half a year.

In the embedded space, it did seem like Linux had matured to the point where it could potently run on widely-used devices such as TomTom, early Nokia devices with Maemo on board, and all kinds of routers, hubs, etc. Not much would change over time, but Linux would continue to solidify its position as a de facto option for devices as small as simple onboard chips up to about something the scale of a mainframe and beyond (although these are not really classified as devices anymore). Back then, as it still stands today, the part in the middle which constitutes “desktop” was the Achilles Heel of Linux (the kernel) and also other parts of the typical GNU/Linux stack.

When it comes to the public face of the Free desktop, quite a few reviews of popular distributions were published by the corporate press, especially in sections dedicated solely to technology. The news back then was a different arena because blogs were becoming seriously competitive and social media sites gained traction to the point where they were an Internet gateway to a lot of people. Advocacy of GNU/Linux could easily be found in expected places such as LXer, Linux Today, and also sites with broader or more diverse audiences such as Digg. The impression a lot of people had at the time was that GNU/Linux was about to have a “year of desktop” quite soon; it was not yet a conformist view to have if one truly believed that smartphones would outpace form factors such as desktops and laptops.

In some ways, 2006 was a strong year for a lot of things associated with software freedom. Several things such as Open Source seemed to have peaked or maintained a peak there — something that would not last forever. Microsoft was having problems with Windows development, Apple was still trying to grow its business beyond the perimeter of longtime supporters (to a degree) and for proprietary forces time was running out in some ways because commodity was made of what used to be scarce by unnatural means. Oracle made some strategic acquisitions which disrupted low-cost databases and later it introduced Unbreakable to put some pressure on Red Hat. Microsoft’s deal with Novell was announced shortly afterwards and it was a clear attempt to start a FUD campaign and also ignite a new strategy, wherein Microsoft will use patents as a cash cow. 2007 would be the year Microsoft also made those intentions more publicly known and acted upon them.

2007

The Novell deal led to some outrageous early statements from Microsoft, gradually shedding more light on what it had planned as Vista was a mess and key staff was leaving. It was not entire unprecedented or unexpected. In interviews published in prior years Microsoft made it known that it might resort to using patents one day. It cited obligation to shareholders or something along those lines.

That is what companies typically do when they fail to sell actual products that they make. Well, Microsoft never made products per se, either. Manufacturing is not its field and a lot of the business is based just on copyright law, attachment to hardware companies, and increasingly patents too, Microsoft would become a leech that exploits laws it lobbies for, over time.

On the Open Source front, investments continued to arrive, however some companies were starting to drift away in directions which favoured a sort of compromise, meaning a lot less adherence to the principles of open source. The debate about GPLv3 and the confrontations it brought about also made headlines and put the FSF at the centre of many things. Stagnation of Open Source had only just begun and the lack of certainty about so-called ‘open source’ companies’ commitment to source code was part of the growing feeling of distrust.

On the desktop front, Ubuntu gained a lot of ground and absorbed a lot of new users, even some people who defected from distributions like OpenSUSE. There was growing impatience in some sites in the face of articles which called GNU/Linux just “Ubuntu”. Back in the days a lot of people just called many of the distributions “Linux”, but Canonical earned a position where its product was seen as very unique and also treated this way by newspapers. Back then there was little to be considered controversial inside Canonical as it mostly shipped a vanilla GNOME desktop, just like its counterparts.

On the server side, GNU/Linux carried on making strives and in devices it carried on becoming more widespread. For example, initiatives developed whose longterm goal was to have a unified Linux-based environment for phones, long before Apple’s hypePhone was first known about. Some of these initiatives would perish at one stage or another, but those which find success (notably Android) would hit a home run and leave their counterparts bashful if not altogether obsolete.

The ODF/OOXML kerkuffle started to go mainstream in the latter half of the year, leading to all sorts of hostilities and also the realisation that standards matter a lot, not just access to source code.

2008

This is the year when a lot of the OOXML misconduct became visible and Microsoft’s sheer abuse, not just with software patents but also bribery, became a mainstream issue.

2008 was no longer a year of many peaks and general excitement, at least in the sense that not many people would mention the term/buzzphrase “year of Linux on the desktop”. It is not that people gave up, it’s just that as OLPC was being bettered by Microsoft and Intel (an offence a lot of people have forgotten by now) ASUS began introducing what would become known as “netbooks”, and just about all of them would initially run a flavour of GNU/Linux. It would soon become a crowded space also with Moblin and Android. It was impossible to deny that in portable devices at the very least, Microsoft lacked a lightweight operating system. It would devalue Windows (leading to margins decline) and introduce people to new operating systems over time.

Novell’s deal with Microsoft was showing signs of age and Novell was already quite assimilated, so it promoted Mono and Moonlight, much to the community’s disdain. A lot of staff was leaving Novell, whereas Red Hat was doing just fine, Both companies got sued by Acacia’s software patent from Xerox, with the lawsuit being announced in late 2007. Microsoft was no longer signing as many patent deals as it managed to sign in 2007, so entities associated with Microsoft would do an increasing amount of this heavy lifting. It was not until 2009 that Microsoft decided to also sue to get its way because TomTom would not surrender to extortion.

When it comes to Open Source, things were drying up a bit. Not as much news about the subject was published anymore, companies like MySQL got sold, Sun was starting to really struggle, and debates about Free software versus Open Source became common. Microsoft was also muddying the water by showing up in all sorts of Open Source events, which it could not get its paws off. News sites in general, however, were weakening. Some were closing down and some became inactive; the market collapse of September (onwards) did not help either. This whole situation meant that by this stage, not much investigative journalism — distro reviews included — could be done. PR filled some of the void left by that, which was unfortunate.

2009

This was a quiet year in some ways. Microsoft gradually ruined GNU/Linux dominance in sub-notebooks by dumping products on the market and maybe even paying manufacturers in order for them to avoid anything but Windows. The use of patents and some related rhetoric became more commonplace and Microsoft even sued. As for Open Source, it gradually ceased to be the discussion of much interest in the press as more and more companies used the label for marketing purposes and just diluted what Open Source really meant. GNU/Linux for desktops was at this stage primarily Ubuntu, which also became synonymous with Linux desktop. This put an end to some of the passion people had for Linux, except those who promoted Ubuntu very enthusiastically all along (I have been a Ubuntu user since the very start).

2010

With the recent arrival of Vista 7, the continued rise of sites like Twitter and Facebook, and the weakening of some news sites as a whole, it was made somewhat evident that even though Linux was embedded in almost everything and everywhere it was commonly referred to by other brand names and Microsoft carried on suing and threatening. Apple did this too later and so did Oracle, although in Oracle’s case not the operating platform was targeted. When it comes to Open Source, news was quite dry, but the impact of the movement was easy to see in areas such as open access (OA), open data, etc. Many companies leveraged free/open source technology as means of speeding up development and those which called themselves “Open Source companies” were typically just mixing proprietary with something else. This was somewhat of a blow to something which once had a clearer direction.

2011

This is the current year, which has seen Novell ripe for a takeover to be completed, Android primed for world domination in some areas, and Linux approaching market share of 100% in supercomputing. A lot of Linux sites concentrate on gossip and dross, covering minor developments around fonts, wallpapers and Unity developments in Ubuntu. Android is treated like its own separate thing, HP puts Linux in many PCs (but with proprietary software above that), and many large companies like IBM quietly celebrate the power of Linux.

Does this qualify as a victory for Linux? Was an original goal achieved? It probably depends on whose.

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