COMMENTARY--Major proprietary software companies such as Wind River Systems and Microsoft have recently taken action on an open-source software reality that threatens their business model.
Wind River decided to purchase an open-source company, and Microsoft launched a campaign against established open-source initiatives, especially the General Public License (GPL). Microsoft also began a questionable "shared source" program of its own.
I would like to respond to this challenge and, in the process, clarify a few key aspects of the GPL.
First and foremost, the GPL is simply another software license. Software is never really sold; it is just licensed to customers. A customer agrees to the terms of a software license each time that customer acquires and runs software.
That said, the GPL is not some oddity of the software world. In fact, it embodies the best of both proprietary software and open-source software by allowing companies to keep their own work while using the incredibly stable and robust features of an open-source operating system such as Linux. To further clarify inaccurate statements, the GPL never requires a company to give away source code to its custom application programs.
Allowing proprietary and GPL code to interact while keeping the two separate is a fundamental process practiced by organizations around the world. For example, if an application or driver runs in user space and makes normal calls to the operating system, the proprietary source code is not required to be licensed under the GPL but may be licensed under a proprietary license if the author chooses.
Challengers of the GPL like to spread fear about its "viral" effect. Yet what they fail to mention is that all software licenses (even the Microsoft Windows license) have the same viral effect as the GPL. The difference between a derivative of Microsoft code and a derivative of GPL code is the final ownership of the code. Microsoft code and derivatives assuredly go back to Microsoft and possibly benefit them with profits.
GPL code and derivatives go back to the GPL and the public domain and possibly benefit numerous individuals and organizations. This said, the GPL clearly delineates an ability to use GPL code, and future derivatives of that code, without threat of trademark infringement.
Making a Microsoft assumption
Through the erroneous assumption that companies using GPL software are "not sustainable over the long term in the real-world economy," Craig Mundie, senior vice president at Microsoft, attempted to connect the open-source business model to failed dot-com start-ups.
Contrary to Mundie's assumptions, embedded Linux companies have produced quality technology used by the likes of IBM, Sony, Sharp, Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Samsung.
More companies have heavily invested time and resources to open source than have disparaged it. Wind River and Microsoft have taken note of this fact and must deal with a threat they hoped would go away but in reality has cut into their customer base and provided stiff competition in emerging markets.
In a January 2001 Electronics Market Forecasters study of more than 525 embedded system programmers, this question was posed: "Which of the following development tools do you plan to purchase in the next 12 months for your embedded development?" Of the respondents, 21.7 percent said they plan to purchase Linux tools, while only 8.4 percent plan to purchase Windows CE/NT tools.
Lineo has been able to balance a correct mixture of open-source code and intellectual property and both realizes and takes advantage of the benefits of each.
A viable business model does exist upon the predication that both worlds can operate together to provide enhanced advantages of increased revenue opportunities, development freedoms, rapid time to market, lower overall development and product costs, and stability. Lineo has proven that a business model based on an open-source/proprietary combination has definite merit and can provide organizations with technical and financial advantages.
The open-source process liberates the world of embedded programming, allowing thousands of potential developers and software companies to keep their IPs even though they are running on top of GPL code. New applications can be developed, time to market is reduced, bottlenecks are removed, and many parties (instead of a few billionaires) realize profit and benefit.
Bryan Sparks is president and CEO of Lineo, Inc. He previously served as chief executive of Caldera. Sparks also worked at Novell for eight years.