Bullies can only survive so long -- and like some Marxist fantasia, particularly debauched, abusive bullies are known for awakening the revolutionary ire of those who, en masse, could easily spell tyranny's downfall.
The context is set. Now for the major players. The diverse and ever-growing Linux community, newly united as The Linux Foundation, may be preparing an assault against longtime ruler Microsoft that is expected to sting - if not immediately, then with time.Microsoft hasn't exactly proven a friend to the open source community. Last month, the less-than-gentle giant threatened to pursue royalties for over 235 patents allegedly infringed-upon by Linux and other open source technologies.
The threat probably wouldn't have yielded the defensive reactions it did if not for the deals Microsoft then struck with companies like LG, Xandros and Novell immediately after. (This week, Linux-based personal computer dealer Linspire also joined Microsoft.)
These deals protect the companies from patent lawsuits that Microsoft may choose to wield against open source at large -- hardly illegal, but hardly fair play either. And Linux, which has thrived under the nurturing hands of volunteers and enthusiasts, is all about fair play.
This week the myriad gurus of open source met up at Google headquarters to discuss current issues within the community, in particular the patent threats Microsoft made. The question of the hour is, ignore them or act?
At the heart of the debate is another matter: the growing popularity of Linux as a resource for desktops, major websites and mobile phones. Linux even has its own phone standards forum, LiPS.
The attention was not easily won. Linux spent years in the underground trenches before becoming the best-known variant of open source software. And it's increasingly going head-to-head against the giant once favored by the "legit" PC universe.
In India, for example, both Microsoft and Linux, via Red Hat, have launched educational programs to help proliferate basic tech knowledge -- not without some bias -- among children previously unexposed to either platform.
Then there's the question of who now is holding the reins to Linux's development. It's now far too complex for the everyday freedom fighter who happens to code by night.
Jason Wacha, an expert on licensing Linux and attorney for MontaVista, said, "Ultimately, I think [Linux] is being pushed by commercial forces [...] Now a lot of people are being paid to do Linux as professionals." He pointed out how many major open-source developers currently work for companies like Google, HP and Oracle.
Perhaps because of its increasing attractiveness to the mainstream public, over 360 rival distributions of Linux now exist. Enter the Linux Foundation, which was formed in early 2007 to unite the Open Source Development Labs and Free Standards Group.
These open source regents now include over 70 corporate and non-profit backers, including Red Hat, Oracle, Motorola and Cisco. They aim not merely to trump the Microsoft threat but to reinvigorate developers whose talents have been wastefully factioned in the pulsating house divided.
The effort seems to be working. "Touch one member of the Linux community, and you will have to deal with all of us," wrote Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.
"With our members' backing, the Linux Foundation also has created a legal fund to defend developers and users of open-source software against malicious attack," he added. "We don't expect to but, if needed, we will use this fund to defend Linux."
The majority of the open source collective looks at the patent threats as a lame attempt by "the enemy" to create "fear, uncertainty and doubt" among customers.
"Microsoft is not the only—perhaps not even the largest—owner of patents in this area," Zemlin pointed out.
James Bottomley, CTO at Steeleye Technologies but pro-bono Linux code gatekeeper by night, said Microsoft is unlikely to sue because many Linux customers are their customers too.
Zend Technologies, developers of PHP, takes a Jungian approach to the giant. "I think Microsoft is a big company trying to make up its mind," said Zend Chief Executive Harold Goldberg, who opted not to join the collective at Google.
He added, "On the one hand Microsoft has a big established business it is trying to defend. On the other hand, there are those inside the company, though they won't admit it publicly, who see open source as the future."
The Linux Foundation plans to issue a consensus statement regarding Microsoft's threats sometime next week.
Until then, Zemlin admonishes, "We ask Microsoft to stop engaging in FUD campaigns that only serve to undermine confidence in the US intellectual-property system. Instead, please work with us to make the patent system tighter, more reasonable, and efficient for everyone in the software business."
Sounds fair to us.
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