Schools, patents and the future of Linux

LinuxWorld debate chews the fat

Open source activists need to get Linux into schools if Windows' pre-eminance on the desktop is ever to be seriously challenged, a panel discussion at LinuxWorld conference in London last week concluded.

StarOffice is offered free to schools and has made significant progress as an alternative to Microsoft Office. But Windows remains "entrenched" in schools, so children have no opportunity to get to know alternatives. Vendors on the panel gave mixed responses about their companies' interest in introducing open source technologies into schools. Brian Green, director of Linux at Novell, said that it intending to unveil a spectrum of initiatives to push Linux, adding that details will come later. But Adam Jollans, worldwide Linux strategy manager at IBM, said that Linux on the desktop is still leading-edge.

Jeremy Allison - who heads up HP's Samba team - pointed that it would be difficult for vendors to make a profit from pushing Linux into the classroom. He said if people wanted to effect change they needed to do it at a local level. This might not be straightforward, however, with members of the audience pointing out some schools would be reluctant to accept Linux boxes even if they were given away free.

Steve Hnizdur, technical director at consultancy Netproject, said only be when Linux comes pre-loaded on boxes in PC World will it reach the mainstream.

Where do you want to go tomorrow?

Vendors on the panel were asked about their plans to develop their open source offerings over the next 12 months. Red Hat VP Michael Tiemann said it would focus on directory products, ID management and "stateless" Linux. Novell's Green said that 2005 would be the year of Linux on the desktop. "Linux in data centre become mainstream at expense of Sun," he added.

IBM's Jollans agreed that the release of the 2.6 kernel would help take Linux into the "enterprise heartland". HP's Mike Balma predicted that Linux would make great inroads in the telecoms arena. A Sun representative begged to differ that Linux was pushing proprietary Unix technologies towards oblivion.

Patently absurd

Participants in the debate warned that proposed European patent legislation poses a severe risk to innovation in open source development. The introduction of US-style patent laws in Europe needs to be resisted before current proposals become set in stone, panellists said. A European directive on patent could be finalised by the end of the year. LinuxWorld delegates were urged to lobby their MEPs and MPs on the subject.

HP's Allison described patent law as a "blight on innovation". "Patents become a legal game for large companies to crush small. It's too late in the US, but there's a chance to fight [proposed patent laws] in Europe," he said.

Red Hat's Tiemann added that although in the US we have to "live with how the patent cake is baked" the battle in Europe was far from lost. Some companies, such as IBM, have promised not to prosecute open source companies but other organisations may be far less scrupulous, he warned. Earlier this week Novell promises to use its own patents in defence against any legal threat to the open source technologies it markets. ®

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