Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source software of the year

Open source software continues the march toward world domination, but the bright open promise dims

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"In general, we're going to be captive bystanders to the war," said Moglen. "This is going to go on for years. It's going to spread rather than die out. In the United States, it's the equivalent to a domestic trade war. It's going to replace billions of dollars in innovation with hundreds of millions of dollars of litigation."

Indeed, many have noticed that Google's use of a permissive open source license with Android has been a double-edged sword. While the generous terms no doubt made it possible to lure top manufacturers to the platform, it placed Google in a position where it gave but rarely received. Will the money that Google makes selling ads on the searches done with Android phones pay for all of the development? Perhaps that may come to be true, but there's little to control the handset manufacturers in the Apache license -- the license for the majority of the Android code. The hardware guys can swap out their own search engine with their own ads, then text "kthxbai" to Google.

Rethinking open source licenses
Battles like this should worry project managers if they hope ever to build something as big and world-changing as MySQL or OpenOffice.org. Suddenly all of that legal red tape becomes more and more important -- perhaps even more so than crafting superior code.

A number of projects, for instance, are refusing to accept source code unless the creator assigns all of the copyright power to the main organization. A copyright holder who controls all of the code can cut side deals with other groups, often for cash.

There are other issues. Google, for instance, is built on top of billions of lines of open source code, but you can't see any of the changes and you can't have a copy of much of it. Oh sure, Google does publish some of the source, and it supports neat projects like the Summer of Code. However, don't for a minute think that you can get some Google tarball that will allow you to type "make" and start up your own search engine and ad sales tool.

As one savvy Google employee with plenty of stock options told me, "If we don't distribute the software, the GPL doesn't apply to us."

There is a growing realization that this is all sort of unfair. Richard Stallman created the AGPL (Affero General Purpose License) several years ago to plug this loophole in the GPL and force companies to release source code even if they just use the software on a website.

How open is open source?
Some people have begun trying to quantify just how "open" projects may be. Research firm VisionMobile ranked several high-profile projects and concluded that Android was the least open of all. It was even less open than the Symbian stack, a collection of code that is going back to being closed source.

"Visibility to the road map is limited, as there is no Android road map publicly available," the report stated. "In fact, development of the Android private branch and the roadmap is controlled by Google, with little input from external parties or the Open Handset Alliance members."

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