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Betting on The Dark Horse

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 2
Column Tag: Programming

The Source Hound

by Dean Shavit

Betting on The Dark Horse

When someone mentions Open-Source software in the Information Technology arena these days, there's often smiles all around. There's big wide grins (those who've made careers maintaining solutions most corporate IT departments wouldn't dare touch); there's wry smiles (folks who'll listen but never ever implement software without 24/7 telephone support); there's the up/down silly Texas-border shaped smiles of those who've spend months or years wrestling with compilers, config files, dependencies, and libraries, and, of course, there's the smile-and-nod "Oh yes we've heard of that" from the gee-whiz IT Analysts who bandy about big buzz-words yet not-so-slyly bet on the favorite from the big proprietors of big proprietary software.

A Horse Is A Horse, Of Course, Or Is It?

Not a month can go by when I don't hear a horror story of Microsoft swooping down on some growing company that didn't have its licenses in order, only to cow them into ponying up for Office and Windows and a hefty fine. It's really strange to see, in almost every instance, those companies continue on with the big proprietors seemingly out of fear of either being litigated into an early grave or left without software to run their businesses.

One reality that many companies don't consider is that there is a choice of platforms and software for any business, regardless of its size, age, or niche. No company has to follow the rest of the lemmings off the cliff and standardize on Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office, or even on OS X, for that matter. There's always FreeBSD or any number of Linux distributions available to use as an Operating System. Another reality, though, has to do with basic support--the computer is a foundation for the software that runs on it, so naturally it should be functional out of the box, if not ready for action, hopefully with some one to call if the computer should come up lame. So choosing a computer platform for personal use or business is a lot like plunking down money on a horse race: there's the favorite (Windows and Office), there's the challenger (OS X and Office) and then there's the long shot (OS X running Open-Source alternatives to Microsoft Software), and of course, the even longer-shot (Linux, an Open-Source Operating System running Open-Source software).

I've always been a fan of the underdog (hence my devotion to the Mac platform before and after OS X), but even though OS X has really leveled the playing field in terms of pure functionality when running neck and neck with the latest versions of Windows, the Mac, in my opinion, is now more than ever the dark-horse platform, but with one important difference: it now is showing signs of becoming a great platform for Open-Source solutions.

Arpanet: The Old Grey Mare

Once upon a time, the computer software business was a cooperative effort between very large entities--most notably the Government, and the Government. Nearly all of the foundational components of the Internet such as TCP/IP protocol suite, and the UNIX Operating System itself, have history in the DOD (Department of Defense) and the ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which spawned an unprecedented level of cooperation between Government agencies and large Universities. Reading the numerous histories of the ARPAnet, I found that the various authors kept repeating two similar phrases, albeit in slightly different forms: "there was a spirit of openness" or, "there was a spirit of sharing."

Evidently, the late 60s computer developers mirrored the spirit of their age, and established a standard of open documentation that paved the way for the Internet, UNIX with common command sets, and email, known as the RFC (Requests for Comments), which came a direct need to keep everyone in the NWG (Network Working Group) up-to-date:

"These standards (or lack of them) are stated explicitly for two reasons. First, there is a tendency to view a written statement as ipso facto authoritative, and we hope to promote the exchange and discussion of considerably less than authoritative ideas. Second, there is a natural hesitancy to publish something unpolished, and we hope to ease this inhibition." (Crocker, RFC 3 - 1969)

One researcher, Robert Braden, summed it up this way:

"For me, participation in the development of the ARPAnet and the Internet protocols has been very exciting. One important reason it worked, I believe, is that there were a lot of very bright people all working more or less in the same direction, led by some very wise people in the funding agency. The result was to create a community of network researchers who believed strongly that collaboration is more powerful than competition among researchers. I don't think any other model would have gotten us where we are today." (RFC 1336)

There's an overwhelming consensus, even today, among most computer professionals and software companies that the Internet should remain framed with the bounds of open standards. That's why it's downright scary when a company like Microsoft announces any type of Internet or web-related initiative--such proposals, no matter how good they might be for computer users, threaten the spirit of the endeavor, which is probably, anti-trust legalities aside, spurred the Government's lawsuits against Microsoft, which probably wasn't really breaking any laws by building Internet Explorer into Windows. What Microsoft was doing, or threatening to do, was to build something that wasn't good for the Internet, and in many respects, the Internet is one of the greatest things our Government ever helped to produce, Al Gore's contribution non-withstanding. After all IP packets still carry Uncle Sam's stamp, as in these:

ETHERNET: ETYPE = 0x0800 : Protocol = IP:  DOD Internet Protocol
      ETHERNET: Destination address : 00E0293C9740
          ETHERNET: .......0 = Individual address
          ETHERNET: ......0. = Universally administered address

GNU And Linux: Horses OF A Different Color

Some web sites refer to the ARPAnet and the development of the TCP/IP protocol suite and the RFCs as the "Prehistory of Open-Source," but actually, Open-Source is often described as a "movement." As such, the years between the introduction of the Macintosh, which coincided with the increasing dominance of Microsoft Operating Systems, and the foundation of the "official" Open-Source Initiative in 1998, are the years where Open-Source compiled its tracts. Much of the action coalesced around two groups: GNU (Gnu's Not Unix), which codified the spirit of cooperation in the form of Open licenses and NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications), which brought the World Wide Web into general use. Together, the platform for collaboration (the Internet) and Open licensing would lay the groundwork for the Open-Source offerings available today.

Much of the GNU project is the brainchild of one man, Richard Stallman, who announced in 1983:

Free Unix!

Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), and give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.

Although the GNU project didn't get into full swing until 1984, it was clear that Stallman certainly had the OSS (Open-Source Spirit). Eventually, this spirit evolved into a manifesto:

Why I Must Write GNU

I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. For years I worked within the Artificial Intelligence Lab to resist such tendencies and other inhospitalities [sic], but eventually they had gone too far: I could not remain in an institution where such things are done for me against my will. So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free. I have resigned from the AI lab to deny MIT any legal excuse to prevent me from giving GNU away.

The first thing that comes to mind is wow, here's a guy willing to quit his job, because he feels so passionately about the need for readily available, non-commercial computing tools. Is there anyone who feels that strongly today? No doubt there is; yet such grand sacrifices are hardly necessary now, not with the the GNU General Public License. The founding fathers knew that spirit alone just isn't enough to make a permanent dent--every prophet eventually has to be or find a scribe.

So, in 1989 (later revised in 1991), the spirit of the GNU project was codified in the GNU General Public License, also known as the GPL. This is now the license of choice for almost all Open-Source software. This principle became known as "Copyleft." Like the Declaration of Independence, the GLP has a few choice lines that sum up the whole:

    1. From the Preamble: "The licenses for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software--to make sure the software is free for all its users."

    2. "When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price."

    3. "To protect your rights, we need to make restrictions that forbid anyone to deny you these rights or to ask you to surrender the rights. These restrictions translate to certain responsibilities for you if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it. For example, if you distribute copies of such a program, whether gratis or for a fee, you must give the recipients all the rights that you have. You must make sure that they, too, receive or can get the source code. And you must show them these terms so they know their rights.

    4. "Finally, any free program is threatened constantly by software patents. We wish to avoid the danger that redistributors of a free program will individually obtain patent licenses, in effect making the program proprietary. To prevent this, we have made it clear that any patent must be licensed for everyone's free use or not licensed at all."

How many of us breeze through the license agreements while installing software, oblivious to the legalities that installation implies? To take a moment to read the GPL reveals a work of sparse genius: modify, customize, even patent the software if you like, but your rights are everyone's rights. Ad infinitum. You can make it your own, but you can't own it. That pretty much sums up the state of Open Source licensing up to the present--even though there's variations on Open Licensing such as the LGPL, BSD, MIT, and Mozilla public licenses, just to name a few. A complete list is available at http://www.opensource.org/licenses/index.php.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, gave birth to a graduate school project and an operating system that bore this name: Linux. Even though the GNU "hackers" had developed a foundation of free software tools that ran under UNIX, the Operating System itself remained under private ownership and could and would be used for competitive and proprietary purposes in the quest to gain market share. Linux gave Open-Source development what it really need to flourish: a complete Open-Source, low overhead and lightweight foundation. Just like the GNU software, Linux could be freely distributed, modified, and enhanced, as long as the source code shipped along with the disc and documentation. It's not necessary to go into depth on Linux, let's just acknowledge that it's been very, very successful. Apple even cut its teeth on Linux with MkLinux (http://www.mklinux.org) in the late 1990's with the intention of bringing it to to the PowerPC platform. MkLinux was different from all other Linux distributions because it used an earlier version of the Mach microkernel that powers OS X.

The Great Big Gift Horse(s)

It was one thing for the GNU hackers and Linus Torvalds to build free UNIX tools and a free operating system. It was another, wholly unanticipated event that kicked the Open-Source initiative into high gear, the announcement that Netscape intended to give away the source code for its browser, Netscape Navigator, which would later become Mozilla (and FireFox and Camino and Thunderbird), and a foundation (the Mozilla Foundation, named after the colorful dragon mascot of Netscape 1.0). A group of excited volunteers, with the blessing of Linus Torvalds, created www.opensource.org, definitively coining the term "Open-Source," and adopting the Open Source Definition derived from the Debian Linux Free Software Guidelines. The gift of Netscape didn't pay off immediately, but when it did, all computing platforms--Windows, OS X, and Linux got a better browsers and email clients, with other products like group calendaring (Sunbird) and a world-class bug tracking system (Bugzilla) as well.

In the year 2000, Sun Microsystems followed the lead of Netscape, gifting the codebase for StarOffice to the Open-Source community, established the OpenOffice project. It was the single largest lump of source code ever to be released to open development, and eventually, through the hard work of the NeoOffice team (http://www.neooffice.org) brought a Microsoft Office alternative to OS X without X Windows, fully integrated with the OS X Aqua interface late in 2004.

The successes of Linux, OSD and the Mozilla project, rubbed off on Apple as it honed its plans for OS X in 1999. By making the core of its Operating System, known as Darwin, Open-Source, Apple gained important mindshare among developers. Almost immediately upon its release, OS X had companion projects such as Fink (http://fink.sourceforge.net) and Darwinports (http://darwinports.opendarwin.org) to bring Linux and BSD software to OS X. With the release of X Windows for OS X in 2002, and Xcode tools with the GCC 3 compiler concurrent with OS X 10.3, the pace of "porting" or tweaking source code for compilation under Xcode has picked up with a large percentage of Linux software available to run on the Mac either on the command line, under X Windows, or in some cases, natively in the OS X Aqua environment, even though some versions lag slightly behind the Linux versions. Nowadays, it's almost expected that an Open-Source project has an OS X or Darwin version. As a matter of fact, there's currently a quiet propaganda battle going on between the the OS X user community and the Linux user community as to which has the greater share of UNIX desktops. Either way, it's a win-win for all computer users.

Betting On The Dark Horse

It's quite amazing how the Mac has evolved in its role as the dark horse of the computer world. Back in the days before OS X, Mac users may have had the superior interface, file system, and desktop publishing platform, but the reality was that as Windows progressed, Mac OS 9 showed creakiness and lack of flexibility. It was difficult, if not impossible, for instance, to get a VPN client, or a Windows file sharing client, or access to an Apache web server without paying through the nose, things we now take for granted. As an underdog, OS X is now not only more capable and secure than Windows, it's also capable of running a majority of Linux software.

Just today, Apple announced the Mac Mini, the cheapest Mac ever. At $499, the Mac Mini has a chance to make some serious penetration into the corporate IT world as a workstation of choice to replace aging Windows boxes or Macs. With more and more companies seeking to decrease their dependence on proprietary solutions (not to mention decreasing licensing fees and the fear that comes from non-compliance as well), OS X is poised to eat into Microsoft's market share as it never has before. Imagine a five hundred dollar workstation that requires not a single commercial application to be a productive business computer, with a slick and friendly interface, the tightest hardware/software integration available for any platform, with no CALs (client access licenses on the server end), no software police, and no malware. I'm putting my money on the dark horse, which just happens to be white.


Dean Shavit is an ACSA (Apple Certified System Administrator) who leads training sessions and manages consulting projects for MOST (Mac OS Training & Consulting) in Chicago. If you have questions or feedback you can contact him at dean@macworkshops.com.

 

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