2010: The Year in Free and Open Source Software

Linux and open source software saw gains this year, yet also saw a trend that may prove a serious reversal.
Posted December 21, 2010

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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To all appearances, 2010 was a year of business as usual in free and open source software (FOSS). It was neither the long-awaited and derided Year of the Linux Desktop, nor a year marked by any great reversals. However, some of the trends that emerged in 2010 may become more important over the next few years -- particularly the emerging tendency of corporations to comply technically with FOSS licenses while ignoring their intent.

But in the short term, 2010 was marked by such a lack of drama that deciding whether FOSS advanced or retreated in 2010 is next to impossible. For better or worse, here are some of the leading FOSS events and trends in 2010 for business, technology, legal matters, and the community:

Business Moves and Directions

For those watching FOSS business, 2010 proved a mixed year. On the one hand, Red Hat continued to thrive, to the extent that Forbes blogger Dan Wood predicts that the company will reach $1 billion in revenues next year.

On the other hand, other companies with FOSS interests showed signs of struggling in 2010. Smaller companies such as Xandros, which have made headlines in previous years, were quieter in 2010, and, if they enjoyed any successes, they were quiet ones that went mostly unnoticed.

As for the major players, Canonical, the commercial arm of the dominant Ubuntu distribution, continued to search for profitability in a distribution by adding cloud and music services, and laying the groundwork for expansion into touch-screens. However, any success in these efforts is going to take longer than a year to emerge.

Even worse, Novell, one of the major contributors to the Linux kernel and other FOSS projects, was sold to Attachmate, with some of its patents going to a consortium whose members include Apple, EMC, Microsoft, and Oracle. Although FOSS-related patents do not appear to have been involved, nobody knows yet whether Novell's FOSS contributions will continue under Attachmate or not.

Similarly, 2010 also saw the finalization of Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystem, which includes major FOSS projects such as Java, MySQL, and OpenOffice.org.

Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, suggested to me that Oracle has still to develop a coherent free software policy, but the decisions made by individual corporate units have caused shockwaves throughout FOSS in the last year -- everything from a campaign to prevent Oracle's acquisition of MySQL by Monty Widenius to the forking of LibreOffice from OpenOffice.org (see below). Such reactions leave little doubt that the community lacks confidence in Oracle as a steward for its FOSS acquisitions.

Technology Trends

One piece of FOSS technology -- Google's Android mobile operating system -- thrived in 2010. Throughout the year, the sale of Android devices continued to soar, with headlines telling us that sales were outstripping manufacturing capability and that they were outselling the iPhone. This success was mitigated by complaints about lack of openness in development, and the use of Digital Rights Management technologies and proprietary Java. All these things make Android a platform built on FOSS that has strayed badly from its ideals.

Another Google project, the Chrome browser, enjoyed something of the same success in 2010, rising to an 8% market share by November, and developing a supporting set of extensions at the same time. This growth makes Chrome the major competitor for Mozilla's Firefox, so that it is now currently setting the agenda for browser development. Chrome is an essential element of the soon to be released Chrome OS, whose design choices raise issues of privacy and control, but is also available separately.

A lesser known, but equally important development in FOSS technology during 2010 is the development of the Linux-libre kernel. Unlike the standard Libre kernel released by the kernel project and most distributions, the Linux-libre kernel does not include proprietary firmware blobs for device drivers, making it the most philosophically free version of the kernel available. The Linux-libre kernel has been adapted by a small but growing number of distributions, despite being several releases behind the latest standard kernel.

Recently, the idea of a free kernel received a major endorsement when Debian, the largest independent community-based distribution, announced that its upcoming release would ship with a default free kernel. This decision increases the likelihood of other major distributions providing a free kernel as an option.

2010 also marked the start of a possible move away from Flash as the main video format on the web. Although free Flash alternatives such as Gnash have been in development for several years, they are still not ready for the ordinary user's desktop, and Flash itself remains a non-free format.

However, now, the development of WebM and HTML 5's video element mean that free alternatives to Flash may soon become widespread. This possibility gained momentum in 2010, although some browsers and applications do not yet support the new alternatives.

Legal Landmarks and Licensing

Arguments in the SCO legal cases continue to wind through the American courts, and some details still need to be worked out. However, for most observers, the beginning of the end came on March 30, 2010, when the United States Supreme Court handed down the ruling that Novell, not SCO, was the owner of the contested UNIX and UnixWare copyrights.

The awarding of costs to Novell on December 10 provides further indications that the saga that has fascinated the community for so long might actually have an ending some day.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Linux desktop, OpenOffice, SCO

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