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The GPL self-destruct mechanism that is killing Linux

Festering hacks, endlessly copied and pasted - thanks Eric!

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Analysis Does one of the biggest-ever revolutions in software, open source, contain the seeds of its own decay and destruction?

Poul-Henning Kamp, a noted FreeBSD developer and creator of the Varnish web-server cache, wrote this year that the open-source world's bazaar development model - described in Eric Raymond's book The Cathedral and the Bazaar - has created an "embarrassing mess" of software.

For anyone who hasn't flicked through ESR's essay, the bazaar represents software development done in public, as seen with the Linux kernel, while the cathedral model describes coding behind closed doors although the source code is made public with each new version.

"A pile of old festering hacks, endlessly copied and pasted by a clueless generation of IT 'professionals' who wouldn't recognise sound IT architecture if you hit them over the head with it," was Kamp's summary of the bazaar model after laying into baffling tool autoconf.

"Under this embarrassing mess lies the ruins of the beautiful cathedral of Unix, deservedly famous for its simplicity of design, its economy of features, and its elegance of execution," he wrote in a piece titled A generation lost in the Bazaar.

With major Linux updates due in October and this month (such as Ubuntu 12.10 and Fedora 18) and with the Beast of Redmond spitting out a platform shift with Windows 8, it's worth considering: is open-source software doomed to a fate of facsimile, and are there any ways around it?

By the end of the 1980s, things were looking bad for Unix. AT&T's former skunkworks project had metastasised into dozens of competing products from all the major computer manufacturers, plus clones and academic versions, all slightly different and subtly incompatible - sometimes even multiple different versions from a single manufacturer.

Richard Stallman's GNU Project to create a free alternative to Unix was moving ahead, but it hadn't produced a complete operating system because it didn't have a kernel. BSD was struggling to free itself from the binding vestiges of AT&T code and as a result also wasn't a completely free operating system.

To escape from the hell of competing proprietary products, programmers should share their code under licences that compelled others to share it too.

Meanwhile, the IBM PC was quietly taking over, growing in power and capabilities. IBM had crippled its OS/2 product by mandating that it ran on Intel's 286 processor. This was a chip that hamstrung an operating system's ability to multitask existing DOS programs - even though OS/2 came out after Intel introduced the superior 386 processor, which could easily handle multiple "real mode" DOS apps.

The field was wide open for Microsoft, which had already had an accidental hit with Windows 3. Microsoft hired DEC's genius coder Dave Cutler and set him to rescuing the "Portable OS/2" project. The result was Windows NT: the DOS-based Windows 3 and its successors bought Microsoft enough time to get the new kernel working, and today it runs on about 90 per cent of all desktop computers.

But Windows didn't dominate the entire market. It has two rivals, and both are some flavour of Unix and have free software in their DNA: On one hand, there's Apple with Mac OS X and iOS - close relatives and both built on Apple's Darwin OS, which uses bits and pieces from BSD and free software projects. On the other is GNU/Linux, the fusion of a free software kernel and the GNU Project's array of tools and programs.

Note the careful use of the term free software, not "open source"; the latter being a corporate-friendly term that came later and it's not quite the same thing as free software. The ideals laid down by the GNU Project's Richard Stallman in 1983 are what made BSD and Linux possible: that to escape from the hell of competing proprietary products, programmers should share their code under licences that compelled others to share it too. It's an agreement that forces people to confer their rights to others - so the GNU calls it "copyleft" as it uses copyright law to drive the licence.

The problem is that not everyone shares nicely. Some people will do the minimum they can to comply with the rules. BSD has one of the original idealistic free software licences; it permits use of the code so long as a small credit is included somewhere, so many bits of BSD-licensed software are lifted for free and hidden away inside commercial products - and any changes made to the source don't have to be given back.

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