2010: The Year in Free and Open Source Software

Tuesday Dec 21st 2010 by Bruce Byfield

Linux and open source software saw gains this year, yet also saw a trend that may prove a serious reversal.

To all appearances, 2010 was a year of business as usual in free and open source software (FOSS). It was neither the long-awaited and derided Year of the Linux Desktop, nor a year marked by any great reversals. However, some of the trends that emerged in 2010 may become more important over the next few years -- particularly the emerging tendency of corporations to comply technically with FOSS licenses while ignoring their intent.

But in the short term, 2010 was marked by such a lack of drama that deciding whether FOSS advanced or retreated in 2010 is next to impossible. For better or worse, here are some of the leading FOSS events and trends in 2010 for business, technology, legal matters, and the community:

Business Moves and Directions

For those watching FOSS business, 2010 proved a mixed year. On the one hand, Red Hat continued to thrive, to the extent that Forbes blogger Dan Wood predicts that the company will reach $1 billion in revenues next year.

On the other hand, other companies with FOSS interests showed signs of struggling in 2010. Smaller companies such as Xandros, which have made headlines in previous years, were quieter in 2010, and, if they enjoyed any successes, they were quiet ones that went mostly unnoticed.

As for the major players, Canonical, the commercial arm of the dominant Ubuntu distribution, continued to search for profitability in a distribution by adding cloud and music services, and laying the groundwork for expansion into touch-screens. However, any success in these efforts is going to take longer than a year to emerge.

Even worse, Novell, one of the major contributors to the Linux kernel and other FOSS projects, was sold to Attachmate, with some of its patents going to a consortium whose members include Apple, EMC, Microsoft, and Oracle. Although FOSS-related patents do not appear to have been involved, nobody knows yet whether Novell's FOSS contributions will continue under Attachmate or not.

Similarly, 2010 also saw the finalization of Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystem, which includes major FOSS projects such as Java, MySQL, and OpenOffice.org.

Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, suggested to me that Oracle has still to develop a coherent free software policy, but the decisions made by individual corporate units have caused shockwaves throughout FOSS in the last year -- everything from a campaign to prevent Oracle's acquisition of MySQL by Monty Widenius to the forking of LibreOffice from OpenOffice.org (see below). Such reactions leave little doubt that the community lacks confidence in Oracle as a steward for its FOSS acquisitions.

Technology Trends

One piece of FOSS technology -- Google's Android mobile operating system -- thrived in 2010. Throughout the year, the sale of Android devices continued to soar, with headlines telling us that sales were outstripping manufacturing capability and that they were outselling the iPhone. This success was mitigated by complaints about lack of openness in development, and the use of Digital Rights Management technologies and proprietary Java. All these things make Android a platform built on FOSS that has strayed badly from its ideals.

Another Google project, the Chrome browser, enjoyed something of the same success in 2010, rising to an 8% market share by November, and developing a supporting set of extensions at the same time. This growth makes Chrome the major competitor for Mozilla's Firefox, so that it is now currently setting the agenda for browser development. Chrome is an essential element of the soon to be released Chrome OS, whose design choices raise issues of privacy and control, but is also available separately.

A lesser known, but equally important development in FOSS technology during 2010 is the development of the Linux-libre kernel. Unlike the standard Libre kernel released by the kernel project and most distributions, the Linux-libre kernel does not include proprietary firmware blobs for device drivers, making it the most philosophically free version of the kernel available. The Linux-libre kernel has been adapted by a small but growing number of distributions, despite being several releases behind the latest standard kernel.

Recently, the idea of a free kernel received a major endorsement when Debian, the largest independent community-based distribution, announced that its upcoming release would ship with a default free kernel. This decision increases the likelihood of other major distributions providing a free kernel as an option.

2010 also marked the start of a possible move away from Flash as the main video format on the web. Although free Flash alternatives such as Gnash have been in development for several years, they are still not ready for the ordinary user's desktop, and Flash itself remains a non-free format.

However, now, the development of WebM and HTML 5's video element mean that free alternatives to Flash may soon become widespread. This possibility gained momentum in 2010, although some browsers and applications do not yet support the new alternatives.

Legal Landmarks and Licensing

Arguments in the SCO legal cases continue to wind through the American courts, and some details still need to be worked out. However, for most observers, the beginning of the end came on March 30, 2010, when the United States Supreme Court handed down the ruling that Novell, not SCO, was the owner of the contested UNIX and UnixWare copyrights.

The awarding of costs to Novell on December 10 provides further indications that the saga that has fascinated the community for so long might actually have an ending some day.

Another court case watched by FOSS advocates that concluded in 2010 was Re: Bilski, which was ruled upon on June 28. FOSS advocates had hoped to use the case as a means of eliminating software patents altogether, viewing them as stiflers of innovation and a method for attacking free software. The decision stopped short of eliminating software patents altogether in the United States, but placed some restrictions on them that could make them saner in the future.

While these cases were winding down, the seeds of future concerns were also sown. In 2010, the Free Software Foundation, which has long opposed Digital Rights Management through its Defective By Design Campaign, turned its attention to Apple's iPhone and App Store, and Amazon's Android App Store.

Besides the issues themselves, these issues make 2010 the year in which Microsoft lost its position as the major opponent of software freedom to other companies. However, since Microsoft has recently entered the mobile device market, this is most likely only a temporary change.

Community Concerns

By far the most widely discussed community story in 2010 was the forking of LibreOffice from OpenOffice.org. The fork has been waiting to happen for a long time, due to widespread disillusion with Sun Microsystem's centralized control of OpenOffice.org. However, the timing of the fork makes it a vote of no confidence in Oracle's ability to run the project for the benefit of the community. In place of Oracle, LibreOffice has created The Document Foundation.

Since the fork is only a few months old, its effect is still unknown. So far, LibreOffice's mailing lists and code contributions seem far more active than OpenOffice.org's have been for several years. Nearly everything is being re-thought, down to the names of the applications in the office suite.

However, whether The Document Foundation has the resources to implement all these changes has yet to be tested. Working against it is the fact that OpenOffice.org has considerable recognition value. To what extent OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice will borrow code from each other is also uncertain. Possibly, the two code bases will diverge rapidly -- which would be wasteful, although possibly unavoidable.

Less publicized, but potentially as far-reaching in its consequences is the project begun in 2010 to draft an anti-harassment policy suitable for technology conferences. Such policies have already been adopted by a number of FOSS conferences, including LibrePlanet, Linux.conf.au and all of Linux Foundation’s events. Given the ongoing concerns about sexism in FOSS, this development could help to mitigate at least some of the symptoms of this often unacknowledged problem.

When the Letter Replaces the Spirit

However, for me, the biggest story in 2010 is one that has gone largely unrecognized: The increasing number of ways that companies have found to keep to the letter of FOSS licensing while ignoring the spirit.

Nothing is new, of course, in companies exploiting FOSS for their own benefit. In the past, however, most companies, however, have eventually realized that at least limited cooperation with a community that includes their rivals can benefit them. What is different now is the number of ways in which companies are technically conforming to the requirements of FOSS while finding ways to continue business as usual.

This trend takes numerous forms. At Oracle, it takes the form of maintaining projects, but limiting releases and development, and of bringing a claim of infringement on Java patents against Google.

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