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Breaking GNU ground

The chief policy statement of the free-software movement—the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License, or GPL—is finally getting some traction among commercial vendors outside Linux companies. This is good news for IT.

The chief policy statement of the free-software movement—the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License, or GPL—is finally getting some traction among commercial vendors outside Linux companies. This is good news for IT.

Surprisingly enough, Sun is the latest GPL flag bearer, astonishing behavior given Sun's history of releasing source code and software under anything but. The company has been profoundly ambivalent toward the GPL'd Linux, an operating system that has found its widest audience on hardware that Sun doesn't sell, and to the GPL specifically, a license that provides users, not vendors, with ultimate control of how they pay for, use and maintain software (www.fsf.org/copyleft/gpl.html).

Despite this, Sun gave the free-software movement a big boost last month when it announced it would release the source code to its office suite, StarOffice, in October under the GPL, and again this month when it announced it would move toward the FSF's GNOME as its default graphical interface for Solaris. HP announced a similar move for HP-UX.

The GPL has proved itself in the commercial marketplace through Linux—all Linux distributions are licensed under the GPL—as well as through much of the software upon which the Internet is built. It also guarantees key freedoms that many technology users have grown accustomed to giving up.

The GPL guarantees that IT has the ability to view, modify and redistribute source code for vital software infrastructure components. It gives IT the ability to set its own agenda independently of the schedule or plans of software vendors, and it provides a common set of resources upon which IT or third parties can build new components.

A year from now, we'll likely see derivative works developed that take the best features of StarOffice and combine them with existing projects in an evolutionary way, something the GPL is specifically designed to allow. It's these derivatives that may have the most impact by doing what Sun could not do itself with StarOffice—drive it into the mass market. Other GPL-based software proj ects are now free to pick and choose from the 6 million or so lines of code in StarOffice. In particular, the software's Microsoft Office file format import and export code is keenly anticipated.

As such, StarOffice's lasting legacy may not be the software itself, but the document formats and APIs it exposes, and the freedom it gives IT, through the GPL, to use those formats in new ways—on the desktop and elsewhere.

It is time for corporate IT to take GPL seriously. It could be as important to IT in this decade as the PC was in the 1980s and the Internet was in the 1990s.