Busting free of the patent trap

By Adam Gifford

There's no reason Microsoft server-based products can't run on Linux. Photo / NZ Herald
There's no reason Microsoft server-based products can't run on Linux. Photo / NZ Herald

Jeremy Allison wants Microsoft to find a way to make money from free software.

It's not that anyone else has trouble sourcing income from open source - it paid for the airfares of most of those who travelled from far flung places to Wellington for last week's linux.conf.au.

It's just that the Gates-Ballmer behemoth is so determined to win on everything but quality, it makes it hard for anyone else to get on and make computing better, easier, cheaper.

"Whenever I meet Microsoft people I try to stress they need to work out how to make money with what we do. They are leaving a lot of code on the floor," says Allison, one of the original developers of the Samba file and print server.

"Why is SQL Server (Microsoft's database) not running on top of Linux? If it wants to compete with Oracle and IBM in that enterprise space, it should be partnering with Red Hat to get SQL Server on to Linux," he says.

Allison says there's no reason other Microsoft server-based products such as its internet server or its Sharepoint collaboration software can't run on Linux, apart from Microsoft's aversion to free software.

He warned the conference Microsoft continued to be a threat, and predicted it would attempt to wage a patent war through the courts.

His words carry weight. Allison probably understands parts of the Windows technology stack better than anyone at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters through his work on Samba, which tricks Windows clients into thinking they are talking to a Windows server, when they are actually talking to some alien machine running Unix or Linux or one of the other operating systems used out in the real world.

Since the early 1990s when he and Australian Andrew Tridgell, who was also at the conference, came up with the basic package, Samba has been an invaluable part of the way the networked world works.

Allison, along with New Zealanders like Colin Jackson, were also deeply involved with the fight over the XML standard for office documents.

Microsoft won that by securing enough votes to get its own OOXML system accepted as a standard, in a process worthy of an International Whaling Commission meeting, but it could be a pyrrhic victory.

Apart from destroying the credibility of the International Standards Organisation, it also leaves a clear choice in the market.

"If you use OOXML, you have one primary vendor. If you use ODF (Open Document Format), you can choose Google or Sun/Oracle or even Microsoft, which is saying it is doing ODF as well as OOXML," Allison says.

While Microsoft continues to be the elephant in the room, for large parts of the open source world there are more positive things to talk about.

English writer Glyn Moody, the author of the 2001 history Rebel Code, says the ideas underlying open source and free software have encompassed other domains, such as publishing, content protection and Wikipedia.

"The key thing when we are talking about those endeavours is the business of sharing," says Moody. "Once you have something in digital format, the cost of sharing is trivial. The urge to share is basic." Patents and copyrights on software as interpreted by the courts create additional damage because companies are being given exclusive rights to obvious programming techniques, slowing down the flow of innovation.

"Free software gets these techniques out in the open; it becomes art anyone can use," Moody says.

Moody's keynote was about the relationship between free software and scientific method - that good science relies on openness and constant rigorous peer review.

Having the conference in Wellington could encourage the take-up of free software in New Zealand government circles. NZ Post, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Horizons regional council will all trial free software this year.

New Zealand developer Nathan Torkington, whose credentials include being a member of the Perl Foundation, says he says other government departments with no previous history of open source represented at the conference.

He says with its mix of technical and philosophical content, linux.conf.au is a valuable confidence booster for developers across Australasia. "A commercial vendor will run a conference on their packaged goods. People who use open source have to fill that need themselves."

The last word can go to Australian software maven Rusty Russell, who gave a presentation of writing a program for a Wii remote controller to teach his baby daughter some co-ordination skills.

"What makes kids geeky? Nature or nurture? I think it's a lack of both."

- NZ Herald

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