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Open Source

OS: Does That Mean Operating Systems, Open Source, or Both?

Taking an existing operating system to open source is like turning around a tanker in open waters—it takes time and it's still fraught with peril.

Just ask Sun Microsystems, which has, it seems, successfully turned OpenSolaris into an open-source offering, but not overnight. Solaris, if you recall, is a proprietary OS originally released by Sun in 1991. However, planning for OpenSolaris, the open-source version of the OS, started in early 2004 and proceeded incrementally, leading up to the January 2005 open sourcing of the DTrace performance tuning tool. About the same time, Sun launched the OpenSolaris.org website in an effort to build a developer community around Solaris, while simultaneously announcing that the OpenSolaris code base would be released under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) and that a Community Advisory Board would oversee this. Ultimately, OpenSolaris was released in June 2005, with the current version, OpenSolaris 2008.05, released in May 2008. Interestingly, this version can be booted as a Live CD or installed directly, and uses the GNOME desktop environment as the primary UI.

So why does this take so long? Why can't a decision be made to do it, and then just do it? Well, there are lots of issues involved, most of which are nontechnical. Issues, for instance, such as business models, licensing, governance, and codevelopment procedures need to be put in place. Then there's source code analysis, source code management, tools, marketing, website application design, and community development, among other topics. So forget about flipping a switch and voila, it's open source!

The most recent operating-system vendor to step into the open-source waters is Nokia, with its SymbianOS. Recall that in mid 2008 Nokia announced plans to acquire Symbian and form the nonprofit Symbian Foundation to foster development of open-source SymbianOS-based devices. Like Sun, Nokia will take an incremental approach to open sourcing SymbianOS, initially making the source code available to Foundation members in the first half of 2009, then making it freely available to everyone in 2010.

Unlike Sun, however, the Symbian Foundation plans on using the Eclipse Public License (www.eclipse.org/legal/epl-v10.html), which Nokia's David Rivas calls the "perfect, business-friendly solution" that fits between GNU licensing on one side, and Apache (used by Google) licensing on the other. What Rivas likes about the EPL is that developers using EPL-licensed programs can use, modify, copy, and distribute the work and modified versions, although in some instances, they must also release their changes.

But full and complete open source in 2010? That sounds like a really big tanker taking a turn.

"The act of taking 40-plus million lines of code and turning it into open-source software will take some time," explains Rivas. Then there are all of those previously mentioned gotchas—licensing, governance, co-development procedures, tools, marketing, community development, and the like.

Okay, that addresses the time it takes to turn the tanker, but what about the peril in doing so?

For one thing, there's the danger that the Symbian Foundation will be perceived—and rejected—as part of Nokia, rather than a independent community-based organization. This is a key concern of Lee Williams, the Foundation's recently announced Executive Director, who moves to the Foundation from Nokia. Still, Williams insists that the Foundation will be independent, yet respectful, of Nokia's role. Moreover, as head of engineering and product development at Be (creator of the BeOS operating system), leader of the engineering development group at PalmSource, general manager of the Mobility Software for Symbol Technologies, and head of Nokia's Devices business, Williams has years of experience in the open-source software arena, explaining that "OSS technologies and community projects that created good mature code have always been a consideration and used in the products and platforms that my teams and I have developed."

So why is Nokia going to all the trouble of open sourcing Symbian OS? And why did Sun previously do likewise? Well, in the case of Nokia, the release of Google's Android, a software stack for mobile devices that includes an operating system, might have something to do with it. But it's more than that. What it's really about is, like David Rivas recently said: "The fundamental economics of software development leads you to open-source software."

That about sums it up.

Jonathan Erickson


[email protected]

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