Bossie Awards 2010: The best open source software of the year

InfoWorld's Test Center picks the top open source platforms, middleware, applications, and application development tools

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Widenius argued that any competitor to MySQL couldn't survive without its own velvet glove covering an iron fist that could compel companies to support the central developers. He managed to get Richard Stallman to join his petition, a surprising move considering Stallman has long avoided getting involved in commercial questions, claiming that the openness of the source and the freedom to change the code were his core principles.

After the dust settled and the regulators rejected his petition, Widenius was left to try to prove himself wrong by making a success of his fork of the MySQL code base. Can his version of the project gather enough support to remain exciting and viable? Only time will tell whether there's enough opportunity for him to compete with Oracle's deep pocketbooks and established business.

Even when the open source license is expansive, developers are still constrained by other more hidden, almost chthonic forces. The Android platform is one of the bright spots in the world of open source. Google released most of the source code under the Apache license, an incredibly generous legal document that puts only the most basic constraints on reuse. The handset manufacturers have embraced the gift and built dozens of new phones running Android.

But even though the license offers few constraints, the users can't do much with the code. Motorola handsets such as the Droid come with an encrypted boot loader that checks itself. If you try to take advantage of the open source license and change the boot loader, the kernel, or the ROM, the machine turns into a handy paperweight. The source code may be open, but about the only thing a Droid user can do with the modified source code is print it out and read it before bed.

One of the managers at Motorola, Lori Fraleigh, defends the practice. Fraleigh says the company is building a "consumer device" and that the open source licenses don't require the hardware manufacturers to permit "re-flashing." Motorola is complying with the license by distributing any changes that it isn't required to pass on. Fraleigh suggests that users who want to play with the source have options like the Nexus One, the phone that Google stopped selling to consumers.

All is not lost, though. Google still sells the Nexus One to registered Android developers through a company called Brightstar, but the promise of an open, fertile nirvana for programmers seems to be less and less real, though the source code is wide open and free. All of the rights and privileges offered by the Apache license mean little if the guys who own the pipes want to keep you on a leash.

There are still deeper issues. There are some complaints that the Android ecosystem is fragmenting as the various phones and platforms evolve along separate paths, creating confusion and incompatibilities. It's not just that applications written for version 1.5 don't run correctly on version 2.2 -- it's that two phones sporting version 2.2 have notable differences. Already the comments section of the Android marketplace includes notes from users saying that the software works on one phone but not the other.

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