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Last Updated: Friday, 5 March, 2004, 16:51 GMT
From code war to Cold War
A new cold war has broken out in the software world, technology analyst Bill Thompson believes, and it will shape our futures.

Things are getting serious over in the US, where two mighty forces are fighting for a position of control over the daily lives of millions of people.

Statue of Lenin, AP
Open code is not communism
The battle is not for the presidency, although the antics of George Bush and John Kerry are obviously of some importance to the rest of the world, but for the ability to shape the way we design, build and use computer software.

It is the conflict between two different ideologies of software development.

One is personified by Microsoft and its closed and copyright-protected code, and the other represented by the free software and open source movements, whose most prominent offering is the GNU/Linux operating system.

And it has become a new Cold War, a fight between competing philosophies which underpin completely divergent economic systems and patterns of social organisation.

Given the growing importance of computer programs in our daily lives and the operation of business. It could well be the defining conflict of the first half of this century, just as the conflict between communism and capitalism defined the latter half of the last one.

Closed code

The browser wars of the mid 1990's were characterised by questionable business practices, illegal attempts to use market strength against competitors and the ultimate triumph of the monopoly player.

In the new Cold War the chief weapons are lawsuits, press briefings and the sowing of fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of customers or potential customers.

For the moment, the battleground is the legal action which the SCO Group, who claim copyright in the source code for one version of Unix, has begun against Linux users and distributors.

Claiming that the Linux kernel contains large portions of code which legally belongs to it, SCO is suing large Linux-using corporations and asking them to pay massive licenses in order to continue to use software which they believed was available at no cost under the GNU General Public License.

Bill Thompson
It is time to accept that both sides cannot co-exist peacefully, because open source offers a fundamental challenge to the business model of the closed source, proprietary software developers
What little evidence has been produced in public does not demonstrate the claimed copyright infringement, since it all relates to code which made its way into Linux by other, legal, paths.

Yet SCO persists, and in the process it is creating an atmosphere of doubt around Linux that has already damaged its commercial acceptance and may have deterred some developers from getting involved.

It would be nice if SCO published its evidence and gave the Linux community a chance to remove any infringing code found or - as seems most likely from the material produced to date - demonstrate clearly that SCO does not have a case.

But this is not going to happen.

Partly this is because SCO has become deeply entrenched in its position and seems unable to back down. But mostly, I fear, it is because SCO's attack on Linux is merely the first stage of a much larger assault on open source which will be waged by existing software developers.

It is worth noting that a significant portion of SCO's licensing income to date has come from Microsoft.

While this has prompted rumours of a conspiracy to undermine Linux on its part, even if Microsoft is not directly funding the legal action the competition between Windows and Linux is well-documented, and providing some support for SCO makes good sense for it.

At the moment Microsoft is under attack because GNU/Linux is an operating system which can replace Windows.

But once we see an open source alternative to Quark Express running on those Linux boxes, or Postgres databases replacing Oracle, and an open source digital music store that challenges iTunes, we can expect to see Adobe, Apple and the rest of the software industry piling in too.

Moral high ground

It is time to accept that both sides cannot co-exist peacefully, because open source offers a fundamental challenge to the business model of the closed source, proprietary software developers, one which they must resist if they are not to go out of business.

It is rather ironic that Microsoft and other closed model companies rather resemble the Stalinist or Maoist model of a command economy with complete centralised control.

SCO logo on box, SCO
SCO is suing large Linux users
Despite claims by some - most notably SCO's CEO Darl McBride - that free software is some sort of communistic plot against America, open, collaborative programming on the basis of shared code is closer in spirit to the US political system.

It even supports a free market economy where consumer choice is based on full information about competing suppliers.

The battle is going to be long and hard, but in the end I think it is clear that open, collaborative programming will triumph. This is not just for ideological reasons or because disclosing source is morally superior.

It is because the network society will require richly interconnecting and co-operating programs, and these can only be written if source code and interfaces are fully open.

However, the code base on which this open, collaborative world will be built may not be GNU/Linux, and the license on which it all depends may not be the GNU Public License (GPL) or a similar free software license so beloved of today's free software developers.

The need for openness is not the same as the need to provide source code and binaries free of charge, or the freedom to allow anyone to use, modify or distribute copies of your work.

Companies may charge for their software, and still provide the source code for inspection.

This implies that we will need to argue separately for the freedom to reuse, as people like Richard Stallman have done for decades, because it does not automatically make sense to the market.

In the next five or 10 years, disclosing source code and offering permissive licenses for reuse will be seen as making the best economic sense.

So now would be a good time to start thinking about how we persuade governments that market in software may eventually need to be regulated, just as the market in electricity, water and food is, and that that regulation may well include a statutory duty to disclose source code and allow it to be used elsewhere.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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