The open-source techie who means business

Alan Cox, one of the most respected figures in the open-source community, talks about GPL 3, software patents, the kernel development process and Linux on the desktop.
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor
Alan Cox is one of the most respected figures in the open-source community but he is also no stranger to the machinations of big business and recently completed an MBA.

Alan Cox is so well thought of in the open-source community that he can pull together a crowd of eager techies to discuss theoretical software stability on a Sunday afternoon -- as he did at last year's FOSDEM conference in Brussels.

Cox wrote much of the original networking subsystem in Linux over a decade ago and has contributed code towards and maintained various kernel releases. Now employed by Linux vendor Red Hat, he is a leading figure in the open-source software community and has frequently spoken out against issues that he feels jeopardise freedom, such as software patents and the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

ZDNet UK spoke to Cox last week, following his talk at the Trusted Computing conference in London , about a wide range of topics, including the next version of the GPL, software patents, the kernel development process and Linux on the desktop.

Q: The first public discussion draft of GPL 3 a couple of weeks ago. What are you initial thoughts on it?
The majority of it looks very sensible, such as letting copyright information be displayed in an About box, rather than relying on command line instructions [as is the case in GPL 2]. Some of the more contentious stuff has sensibly been made optional. One of the other nice things is the work to make the GPL compatible with other licences. That's really important -- it will allow people to share more code.

What do you think about the new provision in the GPL 3 draft that opposes digital rights management (DRM)?
From the kernel perspective it doesn't really matter. DRM is generally used by applications, so it's more a question for things like the [GNU] C library. (Editor's note: Shortly after ZDNet UK spoke to Alan Cox, Linux founder Linus Torvalds spoke out against GPL 3, saying that he won't convert Linux to the new version, as he objects to the proposed digital rights management provisions.)

Last year, Sony BMG was criticised after it was discovered that some CDs automatically install copy-restriction software that is hidden using a rootkit. In your talk at the trusting computing conference, you said that the potential problem with DRM was highlighted by the recent Sony debacle and that there is going to be "an almighty power struggle" between the content industry and users. Where do you think the balance of power is at the moment?
I'm not sure where the balance of power is. There is a lot of evidence that it's on the music and computer industry's side. But, I think Sony has learned its lesson and it's been quite an expensive lesson. There needs to be a clear understanding of what's allowed -- a computer is private property, but we don't know what this means legally. I think some of it's going to come down to government competition regulation -- how you may or may not use DRM, in particular if you're in a monopoly position.

Last year, the software patent directive was rejected by European Parliament, but the debate around such patents has now reopened, with the EC's launch of a public consultation into how the patent system should be changed. As one of the people who campaigned against software patents first time round, how do you feel about the fact that they're back on the agenda?
I'm astounded. On one hand, we have Microsoft being threatened with multi-million pound fines by the EU and on the other hand they're being offered software patents -- Microsoft is one of the big influencers of this issue.

It is worrying that they're back on the agenda. It's a sign of more fundamental problems in the EU. The democratic process [of the European Parliament] is being devolved [to the unelected European Commission]. It's what people call policy laundering -- 'it's a good idea, but we'll never get it past the electorate, so let's slip it through and then pass it on to the individual governments.'

If that's the case, what can people do to campaign against software patents?
The first thing is to write to MEPs. Its not even necessarily about content -- it's about demonstrating the sheer number of people that care about this issue. What we did last time wasn't about the fineness of letters -- the FFII got 300,000 signatures. The Commission can ignore this but parliament has to get re-elected. It will be very hard though. The fact that there are almost no lobbying laws in the EU is a very big problem -- in other places lobbyists are accountable

The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) has launched a patent library, to aggregate information on patents that have been pledged to the open-source community. How important do you think such initiatives will be?
That work is going to be very important, but at end of the day software should not be patentable. There is a challenging area where you have hardware and software together, but it is the hardware bit that should be patentable.

A number of technology companies including IBM and Microsoft have called for the reform of the US patent system. How much hope does this give you?
Things are slowly turning the right direction, but it's really only baby steps. Companies are being forced to admit that maybe there is a problem, but no-one's said how to fix it.

Onto other topics, as a long-time Linux kernel developer, what changes have you seen in the kernel development process over recent years as the operating system has become more commercialised?
Well, there are more patches posted Monday to Friday, rather than weekends. But, the biggest change has not been commercialisation -- it's been quality. In the early days people were building Linux. It now does everything it's required to do, so all the changes are about faster, cleaner and better ways of doing things. Nowadays, someone will say, 'how do I get it to run two percent faster' or add a new device.

It's the sum of things that all users want from it, which is really good. If you had said in the start that you wanted an operating system that runs on mainframes, PCs and palm pilots, people would have said that wasn't possible. Now, every time we get change that breaks something, we have a cycle of making things work for all platforms.

The kernel is very modular, so one area rarely affects another. But it does get harder to improve Linux as it gets better. Wikipedia will face the same issue â€" at the moment people are adding new things so any contribution is a positive improvement, but over time random changes could make it worse.

Many kernel developers work for companies nowadays, for example lead kernel maintainers Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton work for OSDL, while you work for Red Hat. How many independent kernel developers are their nowadays?
Probably not that many. There are some students who do work on the kernel. One thing that drives students to work on the kernel is that it offers good job prospects â€" if you're a good kernel developer, you'll soon get emails from large companies offering you a job.

What I think is interesting about the kernel development process, unlike some other projects such as Debian, is that there is no formal process for becoming a developer. Isn't it risky that anyone can get involved and change the code?
There is a lot of control and review -- every bit of code has been read by several people. We don't have a formal process for training developers, but there are things that have been done, such as the kernel newbies project, which is a way for people to learn how things get done. Or the kernel janitors project, where people work on small things, such as cleanups and reviewing code.

If some random person makes a change to the kernel, we will get somebody to review it. We get a lot of people who make just one change and we never hear from them again, for example, they install Linux and discover their USB stick doesn't work, so they fix that. Having a formal process would be negative thing as it would stop people from making such contributions. The people who make one-line contributions are clearly very good developers, they're just not kernel developers.

In August 2003 you took a one year sabbatical to work on an MBA . Why did you decide to do an MBA? Is it finished now?
Engineers look at sales and marketing people and wonder what they do. When I became more senior in the company [Red Hat] I needed to talk more to sales people and had to understand what they were doing.

I worked part-time on the masters over a year, and have now finished it. I've only just got the results for the research part of my Masters, which investigated Linux on the desktop, and I'll be publishing this fairly soon.

So, what were your findings?
It's starting to happen -- people are deploying it, particularly in environments where there where computers are only being used for basic word processing. Thin client Linux is being deployed a lot, for example, at call centres and hotels. Large companies are in some ways finding it easier to switch -- smaller companies have less technical people and tend to run more applications on one machine.

The French tax agency plans to deploy the OpenOffice.org on 80,000 PCs, but hasn't yet decided whether it will migrate to Linux afterwards. How important do you think OpenOffice is in promoting the use of Linux on the desktop?
A lot of people that I talk to who have been doing migrations to Linux, started using OpenOffice on Windows. For some people that's their only migration -- OpenOffice saves them a fortune. It's a big first starting step and is a very important application for Linux on the desktop.

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