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The European software patent vote

Just as last week's LWN Weekly Edition was being finalized, the word came out that the European software patent directive had, after years of strange maneuvers, lobbying, and politics, been rejected by the European Parliament. And this was not any ordinary rejection: the final vote was 648 to 14. That is quite an outcome, considering that, not particularly long ago, a good result in the final parliamentary vote was seen as a long shot at best.

This vote is not a result of a sudden general understanding that software patents are a bad idea. In the end, most parties went against the directive because (1) it had been amended to the point that nobody liked it anymore, and (2) the parliament was not pleased with how it had been treated by the European Council. So the vote should not be seen as a definitive statement from Europe on software patents; it also should not be seen as the end of the debate.

For now, the software patent situation in Europe remains unchanged. In theory, such patents are not legal, but the European Patent Office (EPO) has issued quite a few software patents anyway. Some European member states are more friendly to software patents than others. So the situation remains muddled, and is likely to stay that way for a while. Court battles to determine the legitimacy of EPO-issued software patents seem almost certain. So software patents are still a threat, at some level, for European free software developers and users. Even if a software patent issued by the EPO is eventually thrown out of court, it's still no fun to be the one in court trying to make that happen.

In other words, this outcome is very much a mixed result. It is far superior to a directive which would have enshrined software patents in European Union law; the rejection of that language is an unambiguous victory. But it would have been far nicer to pass a version of the directive which clearly disallowed patents on software. It would have been nicer to put an end to this problem - in Europe, at least.

Because this debate certainly is not over. The European Council once said that, if the directive were to fail to pass the Parliament, there would be no further attempts. For those who truly believe that: we have some nice ocean-front property in Luxembourg we'd be willing to sell you. This sort of issue, backed as it is by interests with lots of money in the bank and even more in their eyes, almost never goes away. Software patents in Europe will be back, at the EU and member state levels.

For now, though, the free software community can celebrate an important victory. There is still no global software patent regime in place, and there is a far higher awareness of the issue than there was a few years ago. All the effort put in by so many people working to fight this directive has paid off. Great congratulations are due to each and every person who contributed to this fight, whether that contribution took the form of massive organizing or a quick letter to a member of parliament. You have shown that you can influence policy, even on an obscure technical issue, and even in the face of well-funded opposition. Well done!

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The Xandros Business Desktop

July 13, 2005

This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar

Ever since the launch of Xandros Corporation four years ago, the company has settled into a regular release cycle. New versions of Xandros Desktop OS for home users ("Standard" and "Deluxe" editions) have come out towards the end of each calendar year, followed by high-end "Business" editions some six months later. Continuing in this practice, Xandros Desktop OS 3 Business was unveiled last month when it became available to customers from the company's online store for $129.

As the name suggests, the "Business" edition is designed as a desktop system for small and medium-size businesses. This product should appeal to those production environments that have been evaluating the possibility to move their desktops to Linux, but have not found a suitable replacement for their Windows systems - either because many of the popular Linux distributions lack certain required functionality or because their existing infrastructure is overly dependent on Microsoft Windows and Office, and possibly even SQL Server, migration of which would be a costly and tedious task.

Xandros Business Desktop was specifically designed for the latter group. The company claims that these businesses can keep their current Windows server infrastructure, MS Office files, and even run many of the Windows applications they depend on, but can still migrate their desktop computers from a virus- and spyware-prone operating system with less than a stellar security reputation to a more secure and less maintenance-intensive Linux-based system. Although the initial migration will certainly cost some capital, Xandros argues, the overall long-term savings should be considerable.

Xandros is walking a tight rope here. On one hand, businesses that consider migrating their desktop systems to Linux have likely started experimenting with Linux already, probably with one of the freely available distributions, such as Fedora, Mandriva or Ubuntu. If these fit their requirements, they would almost certainly prefer one of them over a $129-per-seat Xandros Desktop OS. If they haven't found a suitable replacement, Xandros might still be a viable option, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that a business with a few dozen computers will end up having to pay license fees that are not much lower than those for Windows. If this is the case, why bother with a costly migration to Linux?

Probably the best reason is to save on system maintenance. As we know, keeping Windows boxes free of viruses, spyware, worms and other Internet malware is a costly and time-consuming exercise, so replacing Windows with Linux, wherever possible, would certainly eliminate most of this expense.

The next question is: why Xandros? If you have never installed and used this distribution, you will be forgiven for asking - that's because Xandros remains our firm favorite as the best and most user-friendly desktop Linux distribution there is. From the moment you insert the installation CD into your CD-ROM drive until you finally boot into your new desktop, you will see true usability features not found in any other distribution. Xandros has not built an operating system by just integrating its individual pieces from freely available software on the Internet, it also developed many utilities that conform to the definitions of software usability better than most other distributions.

Besides all the well-established features of Xandros Desktop, such as the Xandros File Manager, Xandros Networks (for downloading and installing software and security updates), the integrated drag-and-drop CD/DVD-burning application, enhanced KDE Control Center, CrossOver Office (with support for MS Office, Adobe Photoshop and other Windows applications), file system encryption and excellent hardware detection, the Business edition adds further incentives. Among them, Windows networking features are probably the biggest selling point of Xandros Business Desktop - especially when considering its ability to authenticate to both Windows NT and Active Directory domains, to browse NFS shares, and to perform drag-and-drop operations on network shares, as well as FTP servers.

This edition of Xandros Desktop OS comes with an extra Application CD, an excellent 350-page User Guide, and a 9-page Getting Started Guide. Inserting the CD immediately brings up a software installer dialog, providing an opportunity to browse through the available packages. Among the more interesting applications included on the CD are 1.1.2 and StarOffice 7 with various dictionaries, together with a number of development packages and database servers, as well as Citrix and SAP clients. The manual is identical to the one available with the Deluxe edition and Xandros deserves praise for making an effort to put together a really useful guide.

Despite developing a superb package, Xandros might still have hard time selling the product in desirable quantities. It seems that most of the migration efforts we get to hear about these days tend to revolve around one of the free distributions (the current migration to Linux by the municipalities of Munich and Vienna are good examples), customized to their needs. Also, we haven't heard of any success stories involving Xandros Business Desktop, an event that would surely result in a self-congratulatory press release by the company. As good as Xandros Desktop is, it still remains a largely proprietary system, not particularly cheap, and with a potential of another vendor lock-in, which is a trap that many businesses would rather avoid.

This brings up the next question: is the company's current business strategy of selling boxed products, as opposed to giving the products away and charging for services, a sustainable business model? If the history of open source software companies is anything to go by, selling services tends to result in sustainable growth, while selling software boxes is likely to lead towards stagnation at best, and bankruptcy at worse. There are far too many examples of the latter to ignore the danger!

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Next week: OLS + KS/DDC

Next week is the annual pilgrimage to the Ottawa Linux Symposium, one of the key Linux development events worldwide. The schedule has been posted for those who are interested; it looks like the usual collection of great talks. LWN editor Jonathan Corbet will be giving an updated version of the "2.6 Kernel Roadmap" talk at 10:00 on Wednesday.

The Desktop Developers' Conference is happening the two days prior to the opening of OLS. We would love to be able to report from that event, but your editor will, instead, be downstairs at the annual kernel summit. Look for our coverage from that event early in the week. There will be reports from OLS as well, though your editor has learned, from experience, to rest well before the famous closing party. See you in Ottawa.

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