Open Source Facing Test; Tablet First Impressions

The open source software movement has been thrust into view by a number of events recently. Of course by now everyone has heard of the lawsuits filed by SCO against IBM Corp. and a group of about 1,500 businesses challenging all of them to pay for claimed illegal use of Unix code, and to remove any offending software based on it from commercial distribution.

Either way, the Linux and open source movement would be seriously compromised. But IBM remains unphased by the recent challenge, and many in the Linux/Unix software development community are convinced this is much ado about nothing. Yet it strikes at the heart of one of the concerns mainstream commercial organizations retain about open source software—is it something to safely invest in?

This is a complex legal issue with much of the information needed to ascertain the facts still hidden from view. However, you might find an analysis of the claimed infringements by Eric Raymond and Rob Landley (see "References"). A central component of the suit is expressed in paragraph 57 of the SCO/Caldera complaint: "Through a series of corporate acquisitions, SCO presently owns all right, title and interest in and to Unix and UnixWare operating system source code, software and sublicensing agreements, together with copyrights, additional licensing rights in and to Unix and UnixWare, and claims against all parties breaching such agreements. Through agreements with Unix vendors, SCO controls the right of all Unix vendors to use and distribute Unix."

Its claim is that Unix and Linux are all covered under the same intellectual property patents that SCO bought from AT&T when it was previously Caldera. If these claims were proven to be true, then the Linux software movement's ability to build freely distributable operating system code would be in serious jeopardy. Either they would have to stop using the code, or start paying royalties on its use.

There is much to learn from this sidebar in technology development. Legal actions can serve to obfuscate and decelerate the development of a vital programming community whose ideas we teach in computer courses, implementations we depend on in our daily use of the Web, and on whose intellectual rigor rests significant hope for future new technologies.

The German March Toward Openness
While the legal drama unfolds in the United States, another trend seems to be gathering momentum abroad. After considerable study, the city of Munich, Germany, decided that all government related business documents must be made available to the public in non-proprietary electronic formats. The upshot is that Munich government offices are standardizing around open office productivity software running on open source operating systems (aka Linux and Open Office) instead of proprietary alternatives, that is, over Microsoft Windows/Office.

It's no secret that Microsoft has fought hard not to lose such contract opportunities. It is a fierce competitor. But the rationale behind the decision made by the city of Munich is different, and perhaps more worrisome to Microsoft than others. Officials in Munich conducted a rigorous analysis of the competing options to their bid for an office suite for government documents, and the Linux/Open Office pair won the comparison. The impact is larger than the 14,000 office computers scattered across the municipal government. It will affect the myriad businesses that must exchange electronic documents with the city.

This isn't an overnight effect. There are relatively good document conversion tools in Open Office, allowing them to export to MS Office. Rather it's the other way around that causes grief—there remain significant challenges to getting MS Office to smoothly import into Open Office. Reviews of Open Office frequently bring it up short for its inability to handle many MS Word templates and other proprietary formatting instructions. (Note: the latest version of MS Office claims to store data in XML. It will be worth watching whether the MS Office XML document structure conforms to recognized, standard XML formats or whether it will reflect a recurrence of the Microsoft version of an otherwise well accepted standard.)

Microsoft has a large war chest available to its sales staff to discount its products just to avoid such outcomes. It has used this twice in the past year to try and capture deals in Europe alone. It d'esn't always work. Two years ago Mexico City made local headlines for a similar decision. And one of the more formally reasoned considerations of the issues that ought to be evaluated when a government is deciding how to make information it possesses available to its people comes from a Peruvian lawmaker, Congressman Dr. Edgar David Villanueva Nuez (see "References"). It's worth a read.

TabletPCs
I'm trying to keep up, just like you. Recently we took delivery of some TabletPCs to look systematically at where this technology might best support teaching, relative to current options. We have some advocates for these devices on campus, and their arguments are sound. Where you teach with large numbers of images, or, the discipline taught is closely associated with graphically rendered methodologies, TabletPCs can be attractive.

The good news is that so far it's not an "either or" choice—the majority of the current crop of TabletPCs offer the pen interface as well as some sort of keyboard. This may be a permanently attached keyboard with a pivoting or folding arrangement to hide it beneath the screen when not in use, or some means of ad hoc attachment that allows you to bring it with you when you want it, effectively making the tablet into a laptop.

I've been trying one out for a while. I wrote much of this column free handedly using the MS Journal software that comes with Pen XP. I'm finishing it up using the keyboard on my primary computer (a Mac G4) because it's just faster for me.

TabletPCs are particularly interesting in the classroom from a faculty perspective. Why? Because you can not only project your PowerPoint slides, but you can write on them, highlighting in real time the things you want to emphasize. This was always a feature in PowerPoint, but you had to "write" using the mouse. That is coordination most of us fail at miserably. The pen, in this instance, is mightier than the mouse.

If you teach with images, slides of anatomical structures in biology for example, it's awfully nice to be able to import the image into Journal and mark it up with a pen with your own notes. Similarly, for those who teach math, you know creating little GIFs to represent mathematical notation on your slides and on Web pages is a royal pain. The overhead projector never looked better in this instance. The TabletPC connected to a video projector gives you the flexibility of a graphics tablet integrated into your PC applications. That can be quite useful.

In a future column I'll let you know how some of the departments into which we've seeded TabletPCs responded. Is it the next "big thing" in personal computing? It's too early to tell and we're in the first generation of a new technology so things are changing fast. D'es it hold promise? Yes. Stay tuned.

References

Eric Raymond, Rob Landley, OSI Position Paper on the SCO-vs.-IBM Complaint,
www.opensource.org/sco-vs-ibm.html, last accessed June 29, 2003.

Decides Munich City Hall SPD for Linux
http://babelfish.altavista.com/babelfish/tr?url=http%3A//www.heise.de/newsticker/data/anw-26.05.03-004/&lp=de_en.

Munich G'es with Open Source Software, May 28, 2003,
http://linuxpr.com/releases/5893.html.

Julia Scheeres, "Mexico City Says Hola to Linux", March 16, 2001,
www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,42456,00.html.

Peruvian Congressman refutes Microsoft's "Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt" (F.U.D.)
concerning free and open source software,

www.opensource.org/docs/peru_and_ms.php
, last accessed June 29, 2003.

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