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Open Source alive and well at O'Reilly P2P conference

Report from the floor

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The second annual O'Reilly P2P Conference, once delayed because of the 11 September terrorist attacks, went off this week in Washington DC, as a smaller affair but with keynotes from a congressman urging attendees to lobby for their fair-use rights and several companies showing off their Open Source visions for peer-to-peer.

Those who have attended many conferences over the years are well aware keynote speeches can often be some of the worst talks of a conference, but this was not the case at O'Reilly P2P. There were some informative keynotes, especially those by Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School, Congressman Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), and Sun Microsystems' chief technology evangelist, Simon Phipps.

Among the vendors in attendance, Sun was especially prevalent. In his keynote, Sun's Phipps advised the audience that their best protection against vendor lock-in was Open Source. He said Sun views Open Source as a valuable software development methodology, rather than "being religious about it." Sun used the Open Source methodology for Netbeans and Forte for Java, he said, and deploying applications built on proprietary protocols was actually the act of deploying "instant legacy" solutions. Phipps said that in the Internet world where the network truly is the computer, closed protocols have no place.

In addition to Phipps' keynote, the conference featured several sessions and a tutorial about aspects of Sun's JXTA P2P development layer. Licensed with an Apache-style license, JXTA is an Open Source framework for developing P2P applications. Current bindings are available for Java, but versions for C++, Perl, and other languages are under development. Detailed information is available on jxta.org.

Open Source CDDB?
In another talk featuring Open Source, Robert Kaye of the MusicBrainz project explained why he wanted to create an Open Source alternative to CDDB, the Internet-based CD database service. Ever since CDDB became proprietary, there had been efforts to create a new free service. Unlike some other efforts like FreeDB, which want to create a drop-in replacement for CDDB, the MusicBrainz project is a fresh project with the goal of creating a free encyclopedia of music information. By not using the same interface as CDDB, MusicBrainz hopes to avoid lawsuits from the current owners of CDDB. And Kaye wins the award for Most Notable Haircut, thanks to the P2P logo shaved into the back of his head, in exchange for some project support from O'Reilly.

Other Open Source projects were represented, as well. Jabber was discussed in a few talks. I spoke with the folks at Curl, who are taking a different approach to Open Source: They want you to pay for the execution of their closed source Curl language, but the applications they supply are Open Source. They get points for taking a new approach, but it remains to be seen whether they will succeed in their business model.

The law of P2P

Boucher's keynote received a strong positive response. He spoke about the need to educate Congress regarding the power of P2P technology. Congressmen hear from the entertainment industry about how P2P companies are "stealing" their property and they naturally seek to stop it, he said. But congressmen need to understand that much of what the entertainment companies call "stealing" is regarded as "fair use" under copyright law.

The P2P conference also featured an number of talks and panels regarding P2P issues and the law. Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation participated in a number of enlightening talks about these legal issues. It was announced during the conference that the EFF would be joining MusicCity's defense team. Unlike the Napster case, MusicCity is being sued for distributing software that enables users to potentially infringe on copyrights. MusicCity provides no service, only software. This means that software providers - including individual Open Source developers - might be targeted by these media companies for the "crime" of writing software.

The legal track reached its peak with the closing keynote from law professor and author Lessig. He talked about the MusicCity suit and compared it to the handgun industry. Current legal opinion does not hold handgun manufacturers liable for the misdeeds of handgun owners, but the entertainment industry wants to hold a software supplier liable for the misdeeds of some software users. Thus, he concluded that, "In America, technologies which interfere with intellectual property are move evil than handguns." He also explained how a strong public domain was necessary to foster innovation, and how overly strong copyright protections will prevent technologies from entering the public domain. He encouraged attendees to take action by writing to Congress and sending donations to groups that are fighting to protect fair-use rights.

Open Source was solidly in the mix during the conference. Unlike some other general computing conferences, there was no bickering over Open Source versus closed source. Considering how long some of us have worked to get Open Source solutions taken seriously, it was very gratifying to see that Open Source was recognized as a significant force in the market today.

On the whole, the attendees seemed pleased with the conference. I spoke to one man who had hoped that the P2P business solutions would be more advanced than they are today. But, this is a new technology area, and the business applications are still maturing. It is clear, however, that there are a number of software developers who are taking the technology seriously and working hard to create serious business solutions.

Sun's technology evangelist speaks out

In a discussion with Sun's Phipps after his keynote address, I asked him about the role of Open Source at Sun. He said he doesn't believe that Open Source as a development methodology would be appropriate for certain applications like accounts receivable. Open Source is best suited for developing foundational code, like operating systems, which serve as a platform for other applications, he added. This is the theory behind Sun's JXTA project, which serves as the Open Source foundation for P2P applications. The applications themselves can be either Open Source or proprietary, as the developers see fit.

When asked about some of the licensing issues that have been raised about Java, Phipps said that Java might not have survived as an Open Source project. He pointed to the recent battles between Sun and Microsoft over Java and said that if Java were an Open Source project, it probably would not have been able to withstand the onslaught. He claimed that Kaffe, the Open Source Java implementation, was a usable platform for people who insisted on using an Open Source solution.

When I questioned Phipps about claims in the media that Linux is taking business from other Unix systems rather than Windows, he did not agree. From Sun's perspective, Linux is a type of Unix and anything that expands the Unix market is a good thing. Customers can then select between Linux and Solaris according the performance and features required. He believes that IBM's willingness to draw distinctions between Unix and Linux is actually aiding the WinTel alliance. ®

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