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The open source year in review

Following a year of both outright successes and discouraging setbacks, open source advocates are anticipating big gains in 2006.


Analysts and users alike saw victories for open source software (OSS) in 2005 in the areas of personal productivity applications, customer relationship management (CRM) and databases, where open source vendors such as MySQL gained some ground on proprietary stalwarts like Oracle Corp.

But even as the open source movement gained momentum in 2005, other events -- like the political brouhaha over OpenDocument in Massachusetts and SuSE provider Novell Inc.'s well publicized personnel cuts -- were less encouraging to the open source community.

And though IT pros and industry experts point out that open source still has hurdles to jump on the road to widespread adoption, they predict that 2006 will be another big year for the popular development methodology -- a year where the quality and the number of business-ready open source applications will continue to grow significantly.

More on this topic:

The top five open source stories to follow in 2006

2005's top Linux, open source software security tips

About that 800-lb. gorilla from Redmond…

When Peter Quinn, the Massachusetts chief information officer (CIO), announced that his state would stop using Microsoft Office in favor of OpenDocument by 2007, organizations like the Free Software Foundation (FSF) eagerly moved in to support the change with the help of open source figurehead and attorney Eben Moglen.

But when those in favor of Microsoft and those in favor of open source converge in one spot as they did in Massachusetts, things don't stay calm for long.

Before members of the FSF could celebrate the decision, Quinn and Mass. Information Technology Division (ITD) general counsel Linda Hamel were called to testify at a special hearing of the Senate's committee on Post Audit and Oversight. The session was called because Secretary of State William Galvin said he wouldn't support the switch.

Alan Cote, the state's supervisor of public records, added to the controversy when he sent out an e-mail stating that "we will be counseling all our agencies, as well as the executive branch agencies, that [OpenDocument] is not the policy of the Commonwealth."

After heated testimony from Hamel, during which she implied that groups opposed to OpenDocument had been influenced by Microsoft, Sen. Marc Pacheco asked that progress with OpenDocument be halted pending further review.

Microsoft, clearly concerned that other state's might follow Massachusetts' example, retaliated in late November by announcing plans to submit its OpenXML file format to standards bodies ECMA International and ISO. The idea is that by making OpenXML an industry standard, Office documents would be more interoperable with third-party software and legacy applications.

Mass. officials warmed to Microsoft's proposal, but open source advocates -- fearful that the new file format would be entirely controlled by a single commercial entity -- were immediately dubious of Redmond's intentions.

Przemek Klosowski, founder of the Washington, D.C., Linux users group, was not completely critical of the move, but still had doubts.

"I expect Microsoft to do a good job, as well [as OpenDocument], although [Microsoft] is more likely to compromise here and there for reasons of backwards compatibility with their existing formats," Klosowski said.

Overall, however, Klosowski said he is skeptical of any Microsoft announcement that has to do with openness.

"It would be hard for Microsoft to go back on the openness, but I wouldn't put it past them, whether by ignorance or malice," Klosowski said. "They may try to play games with restrictive licensing or claim patent rights on parts of the standard."

Bryan Tidd, the IT director for Canton, Ga., was even more critical of Microsoft in an e-mail response.

"It would be nice to have a true open document standard [from Microsoft] … but I don't think they would ever allow that to be out of their control, making any standard impossible," Tidd said. "Microsoft has never, in my memory, worked well with any standards body that it has not been steering."

Principal analyst for Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research Charles King also had a few questions concerning Microsoft's motives.

"While the company says it will not pursue a Microsoft Office 2003 XML 'Reference Schema' patent and intellectual property claims against developers, it is not clear if proprietary issues or extensions will prevent OpenOffice XML from being truly open [nor is it clear] how licensing terms might affect implementation by open source developers," King said.

Microsoft also did not touch on who will control development of the standard after the ISO process is completed, King said.

"With these concerns in mind, one wonders why Microsoft did not propose to adopt [OpenDocument], a mature format already under consideration by ISO," King said. "A simple answer is that adoption of a truly open standard is neither to Microsoft's liking nor to its advantage."

Open apps continue to gain clout

While the standards debate raged in Massachusetts, open source office suites like and StarOffice gained increased functionality, prompting users of those applications to boast that their personal productivity choice was as good or better than Microsoft's Office package.

David C. Niemi, an independent consultant and longtime user of Linux, said he believes that OpenOffice currently has 99% of the functionality it needs to effectively compete with Microsoft Office.

"The Linux desktop OS's are in a similar position," he said. "What is needed now is to make them work a lot faster and more smoothly, without glitches that keep users from getting done what they need to do. In short, [what's needed is] streamlining and debugging, and making sure the feature set is more logically arranged."

Commercial open source database vendors MySQL and EnterpriseDB, both of which were represented at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) in Boston back in November, also gained ground in 2005.

OSBC director Matt Asay said he believed these companies had "absolutely proven" that making a profit was possible with OSS.

"In the background there is absolutely an objective fact that … uptake is happening, regardless of whatever Microsoft has been saying about [total cost of ownership]," he said. "[Both] MySQL and JBoss will be looking at IPOs in the next one to two years [and] at that point the floodgates will be open."

LAMP burns bright

Users in 2005 also sang the praises of the completely open LAMP (Linux, Apache Web server, MySQL and PHP/Python/Perl) software stack, and analysts expect the platform to continue making headlines in 2006.

"This is not a hobby project. Enterprises are now running it for core functions," said Jim Balderston, a senior analyst with Union City, Calif.-based Sageza Group Inc. "When you see the success Linux has had to date, it is not unreasonable to look and see the success LAMP will have going forward for the same reasons: lower costs, the community development model and the ability to interoperate in an open standards fashion."

Balderston said he has already seen reason to believe LAMP will only get stronger, due to some support from a very influential backer of Linux.

"IBM is closely following LAMP development on a bunch of levels, like with its partnership with ZEN Technologies," Balderston said. "IBM has given street cred to Linux and has added more momentum to it, solidified it, made it a viable enterprise technology."

Oracle sends shivers down MySQL users' spines

When acquisition-happy Oracle bought up Innobase, MySQL users feared the worst. Innobase is the company responsible for InnoDB, the transaction engine that implements MySQL 5.0's advanced database features.

"Oracle just threw MySQL's customers into a huge pile of uncertainty by buying the transaction engine that implements MySQL 5.0 advanced database features," said Paola Lubet, a former Oracle executive who now serves as vice president of development for Cupertino, Calif.-based Solid Information Technology, a data management vendor that competes with Oracle.

"What does MySQL have left without Innobase," she added. "Their Classic edition offers a flat-file DB engine that certainly doesn't support triggers or stored procedures or transactional capabilities," she said.

The response from MySQL on the Innobase purchase to date has been welcoming of Oracle's acquisition. Oracle has said it fully expects to renew MySQL's contract with Innobase when it comes up for renewal in 2006.

"The announcement represents further validation of the open source movement," said MySQL CEO Marten Mickos. "We are pleased to see even broader industry acceptance of open source database technology. This also means that database developers now have even greater flexibility to use MySQL and Oracle in the same environment."

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