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25 May 2009, 11:14

The Undiscovered Country

Dj Walker-Morgan

In the UK, it's a public holiday, and The H's editor in chief has been watching a movie and wondering if the Star Trek universe is a useful model for the future of open source...

A hostile species finds its source of power destroyed. In an attempt to find détente, it reaches out to the alliance which has defended the freedom of many of other species against the hostile species' own aggressive acts for decades. This is the opening of Star Trek VI, The Undiscovered Country, but it could also easily be the recent history of Microsoft, open source and Linux.

The hostile species is Microsoft, of course. The energy moon that exploded, in this parallel is Windows, as Microsoft dug deeper into the franchise it produced Vista which blew up in their faces. Their enemy, the Federation of Planets, would be the open source and Linux communities, who have constantly felt threatened by Microsoft's posturing over open source. The warring factions have been separated by a neutral zone which few, save Novell, dared to cross. And that attempt to reach out to find détente would be last year's reaching out to the Apache Foundation and Microsoft's open source contributions.

But before anyone thinks that the end of this parallel is that the Federation bring peace to the galaxy, we're only half way through the movie. For those who have not seen the film, Kirk, who doesn't trust the Klingons - “Don't trust them, won't trust them, never will” - is sent to meet with them to discuss the opening of peace talks. During the frosty talks, the Klingon Chancellor is assassinated, and the peace process is in peril.

That is where we are right now in the story, though with open source, the disruption that threatened the peace was the Microsoft lawsuit against Tom Tom which sent a chill through the Linux community as it mentioned FAT software patents. “See”, the Kirks of the open source community said, “we cannot trust them.”

We are in a phase of hostile diplomacy as fingers of blame are pointed. The Microsoft/Tom Tom case was settled out of court, but that was quickly followed by arguments over whether Microsoft supported the ODF standard sufficiently well. Then out of the blue, like Kirk and the Klingon Chancellor shaking hands, the Linux Foundation and Microsoft are writing letters to the American Law Institute saying how implied warranties are bad for the software industry.

Observers suggest that Microsoft are “getting” the idea of open source, but, like many other companies, both proprietary and open source, they are trying to work out how to fit it into their big picture and still make money. No, the good guys still haven't won, and the future is still an undiscovered country, but the landscape on the horizon is gradually becoming visible.

Microsoft is trying to be friendlier to open source, but it is still Microsoft and it has made its money in proprietary software. Where it is opening up is on the periphery of their universe, where traditionally groups of users have, even with proprietary applications, exchanged code and tips in a relatively free manner. The other area it is opening up is with interoperability, where it wants to encourage developers to plug in, with whatever technology they have, into the Microsoft ecosystem.

Microsoft's new stance is to use open source licences for its contributions to these communities while maintaining a resolutely proprietary core of paid for operating systems and applications. This is the inverse of one of the talked about “open source business models”, the open-core model. There, the core of the product is resolutely open source, while, for example, interoperability and integration components on the periphery could be proprietary software.

It is to this hybrid ecosystem of mixed proprietary software and open source software that Microsoft are moving towards slowly. The relationships of trust and goodwill are complex in the hybrid ecosystem, and even the open source good guys can trip over them. Take Ubuntu One, Canonical's cloud system for synchronising files. When Canonical announced it, using the trademark that they own, there was an almost immediate backlash saying that Canonical was breaking agreements to only use the Ubuntu trademark for the Linux distribution; they hadn't but thats another story.

But it serves as a recent example of how almost intangible that network of trust within open source and free software is; it is almost like a federation, with different distinct cultures who will never see eye to eye on all issues. From the absolute free software developers, who with a Vulcan like logic, excise anything with the taint of patent or proprietary-ness from code bases, to the coders who use open source, like the humans who explore new worlds and operate on a primary directive to share. Even those cultures come to blows within the Federation.

But before we stretch the analogy too far, let us return to the current phase, and the one that will be with us for a long time to come, hostile diplomacy. There will be common ground between the various species, but an expectation that say the Klingons are going to give up the Klingon lifestyle and live like Vulcans, or vice versa, is probably too high an expectation.

The future, the undiscovered country, is not going to be about absolute wins. It is going to be a network of complex intertwined interests held together by diplomacy, goodwill, trust and respect, Not just within communities, but between communities and across cultures. And hostilities, diplomatic or not, should be the last resort. Just look at the complexity of the Star Trek universe if you want an example.

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