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Will the real GNOME office suite stand up? When the release of the StarOffice code was announced last August, the word went around that it would become the GNOME office suite. Since then, however, the story has gotten rather less clear. In fact, the GNOME project has made no decision on what its officially blessed office suite will look like. It would appear that the GNOME Foundation, which is currently electing members, will have a rather difficult decision as one of its first orders of business.
Things seem clear enough if you look at Sun's GNOME page:
As part of its formation, the GNOME Foundation has announced that it is adopting OpenOffice.org -- the StarOffice productivity suite that Sun is making available to the open source community -- as the core of the office productivity software for GNOME Office.
Interestingly, the announcement of the GNOME Foundation says nothing about picking a new office suite.
Announcements of this type, of course, are interesting to the people who thought they had been creating the GNOME office suite over the last year or two. Projects like AbiWord and Gnumeric have been making great strides; is all that work now to be thrown away? The situation, confused as it is, is probably best summarized by this message from Havoc Pennington, which appeared on the gnome-office list. According to Havoc, no decision has been made, and none can be made until the GNOME Foundation is in place and the issue has been thought over. He also suggests that developers for both OpenOffice and AbiWord should prepare for a future with a single office suite development project. In the meantime, however, both projects should push forward a little longer. OpenOffice should create a truly working release, and AbiWord should still get to version 1.0. Then a decision can made, and some sort of friendly merger can be performed.
That would be a nice, happy ending, but the real world will probably be more complicated. Both projects are likely to push forward independently for a long time, for the simple reason that there are many obstacles to the integration of the two. The usual issues of code compatibility and developer ego are present, but there is a lot more than that going on.
The licensing issue may, as it often is, be the biggest roadblock of all. If GNOME decides to adopt OpenOffice as its office suite, it will have to convince a lot of developers to agree to the dual licensing of their code and the transfer of their copyright to Sun. The alternative is to fork OpenOffice and create a GPL-only version that is developed independently of Sun (and without the benefit of all those developers).
The idea of a fork actually leads to a way in which the two projects could, in a way, be merged. Since OpenOffice code can be used under the GPL, AbiWord is free to grab and use any pieces of it that might be useful. OpenOffice, instead, can take no such liberties with AbiWord's code. In a couple of years, there may well be a GNOME office suite with many components from OpenOffice, but which is named AbiWord.
FreeDevelopers.net - the way forward? A rather widely distributed message made the rounds this week, proclaiming that Richard Stallman and the GNU Project support FreeDevelopers.net. Many people had not heard of this organization previously, and were naturally curious about what's going on. It is, in fact, an interesting initiative which seeks to change the way software is developed worldwide.
So what is FreeDevelopers? An overview can be had from the group's web site:
FreeDevelopers is a democratic entity for the development of free software. The free company, probably the first of its kind in the world, will be owned and run by developers worldwide on a democratic basis in a sacred trust for the benefit and protection of the world's citizens. It will pay all developers to work on free software, and all developers will receive company shares and stock options
The company will be bound to developing software under the GPL only - no other free software licenses need apply. It is a highly international effort, with members from over a dozen countries - including a number of "developing" countries.
The membership of FreeDevelopers shares an intense distaste for proprietary software - they seriously hope to drive it off the planet. They are also uncomfortable with the current crowd of free software companies, which they see as unfairly profiting from the work of others. Consider, for example, this message from FreeDevelopers founder Tony Stanco:
I don't think there is distributional justice in taking the work of others without compensation and having the insiders reap billion dollar rewards from it. What I found especially disturbing is, at the time, they were saying that open source is a "gift" community. So why did they get most of the gifts? Why didn't they give multi-billion dollar gifts back? I don't see why there can't be a more equitable distribution of ownership in those companies. If there was, more developers would be compensated and more free software would be written.
The purpose of FreeDevelopers is to spread the "gifts" more broadly.
To get there, FreeDevelopers intends to make a truly developer-owned company. All developers will be paid for their work, in cash and stock both. Details on how that will work are still somewhat vague; but, according to a conversation we had with "Radi," a founding member of the group, the plan is to pay all developers equally. "But obviously, then you would have to adjust for experience, contributed effort and productivity."
The governance of the company is supposed to be modeled on the U.S. constitution. Given this week's events, one can only hope that they dispense with the Electoral College. There will some sort of representative body which will engage in decision making - "a sober Senate of CS professors and project leaders, and a younger, more adventurous House of CS students and developers." But much will also be settled by direct vote.
All that leaves open a very interesting question, though - where, exactly, will the money come from to pay all those developers? The company has no business plan as such, but the idea seems to be to sell contract services, with the resulting software being released under the GPL. The core of the plan, though, would appear to be to seek government funding. From Radi again:
Software is a public good, like infrastructure and roads, so the government is the correct entity to fund most of it. That does not mean that government should do it, but government should pay for it. Just like it does for road projects, where private road crews actually go out and do the work.
Ages ago, Richard Stallman published the GNU Manifesto, describing what he was about; one of the more controversial ideas within was the imposition of a software tax. Almost two decades later, the idea lives on.
FreeDevelopers may see through the implementation of that idea and thrive, but it will have to face a great many challenges on the way there. Finding a way to distribute "gifts" fairly will not be a straightforward task - even if you don't try to compensate the authors of all the existing free software that FreeDevelopers will certainly use. Running an international operation of the scale foreseen will be a challenge on its own. Paying developers in stock will be gratifying only if there is a market for that stock, which is a whole other can of worms. Once there is a market, there will be non-developer owners with an agenda of their own. FreeDevelopers is also currently resource-starved, to the point that it has to use Topica to host its mailing lists.
In summary, the business world is going to have its say in how FreeDevelopers does, and that world has little interest in morally correct software and equitable distribution of rewards. Wish them luck, they are going to need it.
Penguin Gallery updated. The LWN Linux Penguin Gallery has been updated with 16 new Tux variants. Have a look and see what the penguin artists have been up to recently. Thanks to all of you who have been sending in your penguin sightings.
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November 9, 2000