On August 15, LinuxCon celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Linux kernel with a Roaring Twenties party, complete with swing bands and tuxedos and flapper costumes. The milestone was one that conference attendees were happy to celebrate, despite the obvious embarrassment of Linus Torvalds himself.
Unfortunately, 2011 as a whole didn't measure up to those few hours of partying. In fact, whether you are looking at business, the community, or the technology, for free and open source software (FOSS), 2011 was in many ways a disappointing year.
Not that any great disaster struck in the last twelve months. For many -- even most -- businesses and community projects, the year was routine, with new products and releases rolling out like any other year.
However, at the same time, opposition to free software continued to build in 2011. Nor was the year a lucky one for anyone taking a new direction. In fact, when you look back at 2011, most of the major events were disappointments, only occasionally softened by unexpected secondary results.
What made 2011 such an all-round downer? Here are some of the highlights (or should I say low points?) of the year.
Legal threats and the need for patent reform are problems that free software has lived with for over a decade. However, in 2011, the vultures seemed to circle a little closer.
To start with, the American Invents Act, which many hoped would bring about some much-needed reforms in the United States, failed to address major issues such as trolls and overly broad patents -- let alone abolish software patents, as many would advocate. Its introduction of a nine-month review after patent granting was generally considered a mild consolation at best.
Meanwhile, Oracle's patent case against Google continued, with the court date postponed until 2012.
In addition, Microsoft began trolling for patent settlements with manufacturers of Android phones. Many manufacturers knuckled under.
At the same time, the legal threats continued, with the semi-secret Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA), which could criminalize many aspects of free software, has started to be signed by the nations who have worked upon it.
Within the United States, more general threats emerged in the form of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (also known as the Internet Blacklist Bill), the Protect IP Act, and bill s.978 -- all regressive pieces of legislation that could cripple the Internet as we currently know it. Given free software's inter-dependency on the Internet, these pieces of legislation could affect the community even more than general Internet users.
Perhaps partly because of this increasingly ominous legal background, FOSS-related business was quiet in 2011. The one new company of note was Nat Friedman and Miguel de Icaza's Xamarin, which resulted when Attachmate, in acquiring Novell, jettisoned the Mono assets. The same restructuring also resulted in making SUSE an independent business arm of Attachmate, although so far little has been heard from it.
Otherwise, major business news was scarce in 2011. Much of the rest was negative, such as Nokia dropping MeeGo in favor of Windows 7 and Hewlett-Packard dropping both its Touchpad tablet and the Linux-based WebOS that powered it.
Yet another failure was Google's Chromebook laptops, whose productivity apps are almost entirely in the cloud. Announced as a sign of things to come, the Chromebook's sales are estimated at no more than thirty thousand, and have recently been dismissed as an idea that nobody was really interested in.
Patents and the legal threats to business affect the FOSS community just as strongly. However, the community faced its own problems in 2011. In particular, two major sites -- the Linux kernel server and the Linux Foundation -- were compromised.
These attacks were not only a symbolic blow to FOSS' claim to greater security, but a major inconvenience as well. The Linux Foundation took weeks to restore its community site Linux.com, and, three months later, has yet to restore the archives from the days that Linux.com operated as a news site -- an oversight that deprives the community of a valuable historical resource.
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