9 Free and Open Source Software Stories to Watch in 2011

Tuesday Dec 28th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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From Gnome 3.0 to Chrome OS to Wikileaks, the year ahead should prove interesting for Linux and open source.

This year, I'm giving up making predictions. By my count, my record for 2010 was slightly worse than random chance, and my inability to impress readers individually with cold readings makes me conclude that I should leave fortune telling to the tarot readers.

Instead, here are the stories that are likely to make headlines in 2011 for free and open source software. The New Year being an arbitrary division, the majority of them are developments of stories that began in 2010, or even earlier:

1) The Response to GNOME 3.0

The next major release of the GNOME desktop was delayed twice in 2010 -- predictably, since cleaning up and revising an operating system is a large undertaking. Also GNOME developers are hoping to release a polished new version, rather than a work-in-progress like KDE 4.0, whose unfinished state received such a hostile reception in 2008.

Unfortunately, the development versions released in 2010 have not been received with unanimous enthusiasm, either. Part of this reception may be nothing more than conservatism, but part of it may be that GNOME 3.0's apparent emphasis on multiple workspaces is too elaborate for users who view desktops as simply a launch pad for their applications.

Unless GNOME developers can pull a last minute rabbit out of their collective hat, a mixed response for GNOME 3.0 seems inevitable. Even then, a fork to continue development of GNOME 2.0 is probable. A strongly hostile reaction may weaken GNOME's dominant position on the desktop, increasing the popularity of KDE or opening the way for Ubuntu's Unity desktop.

2) The Reception of Chrome OS

The much-delayed Chrome OS should make a debut some time in 2011. A cloud-oriented operating system, Chrome will officially be available only as part of bundled computers, although the source code and unofficial builds are available online.

Some pundits see the potential for Chrome to become a major competitor to Windows. However, while Google's size alone could give it clout, Google's sometimes lackluster marketing of the Nexus phone proves that size is only part of the formula for success. The limited functionality of online apps, combined with issues about privacy and availability, may severely limit Chrome's success. Even if users don't use 80% of the features in most software, they may still prefer to have them all available.

However, Paul Buchheit predicts Chrome OS's real competitor may be Google's own Android OS. As Buchheit tweeted, "ChromeOS has no purpose that isn’t better served by Android (perhaps with a few mods to support a non-touch display)."

3) The Balance of Innovation Between OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice

LibreOffice is the fork of OpenOffice.org that was announced in September 2010. Part of the reason for the fork is a lack of confidence in Oracle's stewardship of OpenOffice.org, but equally important is a long-standing discontent among many developments over the slowness of OpenOffice.org's evolution.

Although a release candidate of LibreOffice's first release is currently available, it has few differences from OpenOffice.org. However, anyone who browses the mailing lists of both LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org can hardly help but notice that LibreOffice's are the more lively. In the enthusiasm for the fork, everything seems up for reconsideration, and this attitude could lead to a 2011 release that is strongly different from OpenOffice.org.

Yet possibly, Oracle could respond to the competition with innovations of its own. If so, then the real question for users is whether the two competing projects will borrow code from each other, or whether we'll have to become active consumers, carefully considering the pros and cons of the two rivals before downloading.

4) The Success of the Ubuntu Stack

Ubuntu and its commercial arm Canonical showed a preference for a free software stack that they could dominate and a reluctance for working with existing projects. For instance, they have chosen to invest efforts in the Wayland project rather than the established X.org project, and to develop the Unity desktop rather than work on the standard GNOME desktop or their own spin-off.

2011 will see the first Ubuntu releases with the Unity desktop, and, by the end of the year, we should see how it is being received. On the one hand, Unity's design is simple enough for everything from the desktop to mobile devices, which should simplify code maintenance and makes it easy to learn. On the other hand, it seems too simple for more experienced users who want control over their computing.

Whether Ubuntu's popularity can force acceptance of Unity, or whether articles about replacing it with standard GNOME will suddenly appear everywhere is anybody's guess. Mine is that we will see a little of both. Just possibly, though, Canonical will prosper or collapse over this single issue.

5) The Oracle-Google Patent Case

August 2010 saw Oracle file charges of patent infringement against Google for its use of Java. In 2011, we should learn if Google plans to contest the charges, settles out of court, or even agrees to a patent tax on Android phones.

How the suit develops will also indicate how Oracle will deal with free software in general. Will it become a good corporate citizen of the free software community? Or will it simply try to manipulate free software for its immediate corporate interests? If Oracle is only interested in manipulation, then other similar cases may be filed in 2011.

6) Attachmate's Treatment of SUSE and openSUSE

One of the major business stories in open source software was Attachmate's acquisition of Novell, and with it SUSE Enterprise Linux and support of the openSUSE community.

Attachmate has issued assurances that it will continue Novell's extensive involvement in free software However, the community is skeptical of such assurances from corporations, having had similar ones recently from Oracle. Moreover, Attachmate's lack of experience in free software is a cause for concern.

Given Novell's contributions to the Linux kernel, LibreOffice, and other projects, any reduction in activity by Novell could have serious -- although possibly temporary -- effects on the progress of free software. At least some changes in personnel and emphasis seem likely, even if Attachmate proves itself capable of fitting into free software.

7) The Spread of Free Video Formats

2010 was marked by the emergence of WebM and HTML 5's video element as alternatives to Flash and other online video formats. Both formats are already starting to appear as an option on sites like YouTube.

2011 should see the continued development of these formats, as browsers and other applications release versions that support them. The year should also see a struggle between WebM and HTML 5 for dominance. Given that WebM is backed by Google, and HTML 5 is the latest development of an already ubiquitous format, which one wins out is impossible to predict. Very likely, the competition will emerge in 2011, but not be settled for several more years.

8) ACTA and Its Consequences

The concept of intellectual property has always been decried by free software advocates like Richard Stallman, on the grounds that it stifles innovation and can hinder the spread of free software. Since 2006, one of the ongoing concerns has been ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), a proposed international agreement for cooperation and enforcement of patents, copyrights, and other aspects of intellectual property law.

Since the proposed text was released in November 2010, the issue has gained new urgency.

Aside from the assumption that intellectual property is a concept that is workable and deserves to be perpetuated, ACTA is objectionable for a number of reasons.

To start with, its name equates the counterfeiting of physical goods with copyright and file-sharing. In addition, it could entrench the use of Digital Rights Management and make the disabling of it illegal, allow for the seizure and destruction of hardware suspected of being involved in infringement, and searches at the request of non-government organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

To make matters worse, much of the discussion about ACTA has been conducted in secret and outside existing organizations such as the World Intellectual Property Organization.

As ACTA moves towards acceptance and enforcement, groups like the Free Software Foundation will be trying to educate the public about these issues, making clear how they affect consumer rights and privacy. Depending on the speed with which ACTA is implemented, demonstrations and other grass root protests may emerge in 2011.

9) WikiLeaks Affects Perception of Free Software

The ongoing story of WikiLeaks is a rare example of free software concerns coming to the attention of the general public. Transparency and openness, the accountability of authorities and decision-making -- all these issues overlap with the concerns and purposes of free software advocates.

As the story continues in 2011, it may provide an opportunity for educating people about these issues. However, what seems even likelier is a backlash against these issues.

For one thing, WikiLeaks may have compromised its effectiveness by releasing indiscriminate information that sounds more like gossip than revelation. Even more importantly, efforts by diplomats and governments to discredit Wikileaks may discredit free software by association.

For example, in the last few weeks, I have had several people ask me if Wikipedia was associated with WikiLeaks in some way. In each case, the implication was that, if the association existed, Wikipedia was somehow less reliable.

It is all too easy to imagine issues like transparency and openness being linked in people's minds to irresponsibility. Although WikiLeaks is not directly connected to free software, the distinction may be clear in many people's minds, and in 2011 one may become confused with the other. Since WikiLeaks is being scapegoated, that connection would be unfortunate, regardless of how you view WikiLeaks.

The Sole Prediction

These stories add up to the sole prediction that I am willing to make: 2011 is going to be an interesting year for free and open source software.

The trouble is, you can always say that about free software. And, undoubtedly, much of what makes 2011 interesting will be events that nobody looking ahead can predict.

Personally, though, I can't say that I would have things any other way. In the popular adage, living in interesting times is a curse, but that's what makes writing about free software worth my time. For all its growing popularity, free software remains the bleeding edge, and the scratches and scar tissue that contact with it sometimes brings are far preferable to writing about Windows 7 or Microsoft Office.

Just don't hold me accountable if these stories are less important than I've suggested. The fact that I have given up predictions doesn't make me any more responsible than I was last year.

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