Open source tries to regroup at annual event

ITworld.com –

With its footprint in nearly every corner of the Internet and computing industry, the collaborative development model called open source that spawned Linux and the Apache Web server is on the ropes, criticized publicly by its foes as unworkable, weighed down by internal strife and bruised by a dragging economy.

But the latest troubles for open source have not stopped its supporters from forging ahead to try to make the model viable for large businesses. That is the promise of the 3rd Annual O'Reilly Open Source Convention, which begins Monday July 23 in San Diego, California.

"This is really the first conference of its kind to have an executive focus," said Tim O'Reilly, founder and chief executive officer of event organizer O'Reilly & Associates Inc. "It really is aimed at business people more than strictly the technical people."

Critics such as Microsoft Corp. have lashed out against open source and its related usage issues in the commercial market. And while many of the major hardware and software vendors expect to announce new initiatives with the open source and Linux model, bickering among open source developers has slowed down its progress. Finally, a slow economy has also put several leading open-source vendors out of business or in financial problems.

As open source proponents struggle to overcome these pitfalls, and look for a place in the mainstream business sector, a shift in priorities among open source developers may be happening, one that will show up in many of the announcements expected at the O'Reilly event. For instance, Hewlett-Packard Co. said it plans to "confirm" its commitment to open source and Linux at the show, and use an open source approach for one of its projects under development. Sun Microsystems Inc. will make a similar statement at event regarding its peer-to-peer research project JXTA. Similarly, a few of the show's top billings -- out of more than 250 planned speeches and workshops -- will focus on plans from the movement's most outspoken foe, Microsoft.

Ximian Inc. is due to outline more details of its project Mono, touted as an open source, Linux-based companion to Microsoft's .Net. The convention will also reveal work underway by independent developers working on an open source alternative to Microsoft's Passport authentication service, O'Reilly said.

Despite an effort to focus on the progress of open source, it will be hard this week to ignore its weaknesses, which have wounded -- even toppled -- open source companies in the face of shrinking IT budgets and a sour economy.

VA Linux Systems Inc., for example, recently ditched its hardware business selling Linux servers and workstations in the face of a dwindling dot-com customer base and new competition from major vendors such as IBM Corp. and Dell Computer Corp., which have embraced Linux. Open source desktop software developer Eazel Inc. also failed with the model, shutting down in May after failing to secure funding. And open source software and services firm CollabNet Inc. faced setbacks which resulted last month in its decision to close SourceXchange, a marketplace for open source projects.

These missteps have raised concerns over open source penetrating the enterprise. "It's almost a contradiction in terms to speak of commercial distribution of open source software," said Jon Rubin, an analyst with Gartner Inc.

"How do you add value to a product if it's the same as all the others?" he asked. "It shows the inherent problem that any open source segment has to overcome in order to achieve commercial viability."

Focusing on the faults of Linux companies has clouded the movement's other successes, the show's organizer argued. "Open source is used all the time in the enterprise, it's just not getting ink," O'Reilly said, citing its contributions to the rise of the Internet service provider industry through open source projects such as Sendmail and Apachee.

"Clearly open source has a long way to go before it can lead the enterprise" but open source fuels businesses that generate tens of billions of dollars, O'Reilly said.

Still, there are critics who debate this, laying the foundation for a planned debate on the merits of the open source model and the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License (GPL). Red Hat Inc. Chief Technical Officer Michael Tiemann and Microsoft Senior Vice President Craig Mundie plan to duke it out along with a panel of other industry pundits, following a session from Microsoft where it will lay out its shared source philosophy.

"I think people are realizing there is interesting work coming out of Microsoft, and it's not just us versus them," O'Reilly said.

With a number of companies sure to ring in with commentary on the open source debate, which is scheduled for Thursday, the Free Software Foundation, whose founder Richard Stallman authored the GPL more than 10 years ago, has already taken issue. The group, which promotes its own philosophy of freely distributed and governed software, said it was unduly left out of the debate despite its close association with the issue.

"The debate is being held under the banner of open source, yet the fundamental issues about this debate are about software freedom and the GPL," said the group's spokesman Bradley Kuhn.

The convention is also expected to play host to another controversy in the open source and free software communities that highlights some of the potential pitfalls associated with the loosely monitored development models. Executives from two open source database companies, MySQL AB and NuShere, the company behind the MySQL.org developers community, are expected to address on ongoing legal battle over the use of the MySQL trademark. The two companies began a partnership a year ago when MySQL AB first open sourced its product under the GPL, and have since exchanged lawsuits over their working relationship.

"It's sort of a petty fight going on between the two companies," said Gartner's Rubin, who follows the budding open source database market. "I see it more as a culture clash between the traditional culture of open source versus attempts to come up with commercial distributions of open source."

Information about the O'Reilly Open Source Convention is at http://conferences.oreilly.com/oscon/.

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