the freedom to be or to bsd

This week I attended - well, really kind of co-hosted - a morning-long seminar for the local software development community on the subject of the complexities surrounding open-source software licensing.

This week I attended – well, really kind of co-hosted – a morning-long seminar for the local software development community on the subject of the complexities surrounding open-source software licensing.

Though the attendance was a little disappointing, the techies who came pretty much universally agreed that the information on offer, courtesy of the knowledgeable woman we brought up from the Miller Thompson law offices in Vancouver, was pretty high grade and stimulating.

OK, let me be the first to admit that I am wandering into a pretty arcane area here, since most of my readers are, like me, not software developers, and most of them, like me (at least until this week) have little knowledge of what open-source software is, or what the heck software licensing has to do with anything.

Recondite as it may initially appear, however, the business of open-source software development and licensing has more implications for consumers of digital services than they generally recognize, which is why I bother to bring it up as a subject here.

Put very basically, open-source software is software developed by a loose community of enthusiasts and volunteers, and distributed within the community and to the general public with full access to the computer code behind that software, and full rights for other developers to alter that code as they see fit.

The most currently famous example of an open source software program is the Firefox web browser, which over the past six years or so has competed for market share with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and with considerable success.

From a more or less standing start, it has steadily eroded Internet Explorer’s virtual monopoly over the web browser market, to the point where it now has 30 per cent of that market, compared to Internet Explorer’s 47 per cent (the difference is made up with minority browsers like Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari).

(Those measurements are a little problematic, of course, since both web browsers are free to download, and do not require any product registration. We can only get rough counts, based on reports from some heavy-volume websites, which identify and log the varieties of web browsers that are “clicking” on them.)

The second most famous instance of a “consumer end” open source software program is probably OpenOffice, a suite of word processing, spread sheet and other applications which is free, and which directly competes with Microsoft Office – Microsoft’s flagship product and main cash cow.

Since the program is free to download and make copies of, getting a reasonable estimate of how OpenOffice is measuring up to Microsoft Office in terms of market share is more problematic.

A German company recently estimated that OpenOffice now has as much as 21 per cent of the market share in Germany and – using a survey technique of probably more questionable value (search it out at webmasterpro.de) – 11 per cent in Canada and nine per cent in the USA.

Far more significant for the common computer and internet user, however, are the open source programs they use without really seeing.

The Apache HTTP server software, for instance, is an open source product that has achieved market dominance in the area of web hosting, and played a crucial role in the rapid expansion of the world wide web in the 1990s. Today, more that 100 million websites are on line courtesy of the Apache software system.

In the newer market of mobile “smart phones” (which are really handheld computers that happen to make phone calls), Google’s Android operating system, which it published under an open source licence, is the major competitor to Apple’s iPhone operating system, which is not open source.

For all its power and success, however, the open source software development sector remains fragmented, controversial, and complex.

At the heart of all this confusion is the issue of licensing – in other words, how you control the development and commercialization of software products that are not the work of one mind or one company, but of a loose community of interested parties, some of whom may not always play well with the other children.

This is not the place to go into the tangled wilderness the differences, similarities and conflicts between things like the Gnu General Public Licence Version 3 and Version 4, and the Lesser General Public Licence, and Modified BSD Licence – all that took three hours of talk and explanation from a very informed lawyer at the seminar, this week.

The basic problem with open source licensing is that there are too many different kinds of licence, developed by different people or groups for different purposes. Trying to combine pieces of computer code protected by vaguely worded and sometimes mutually contradictory licence protections can be crazy-making.

The thumbnail of the outcome from that gathering, for me at least, was that the open software world is extremely powerful, and extremely useful if you are looking to develop software tools for your own personal or corporate use; but it is generally too much of a legal quagmire to serve as a safe foundation for building a piece of software you intend to sell on the open market.

That is probably why the most successful products of the open software community have generally been freebees.

And good ones, too. I researched this article largely using the Firefox browser, and wrote it using the OpenOffice word processor program. Both worked like a hot damn.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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