What is the significance of IBM’s patent attack on the company behind the open source Hercules community? I believe it may indicate a change in the balance of power inside IBM, one probably reflected in other large corporations, as cloud computing rises in prominence and as the main disruptive force becomes Google – a large user of FOSS – instead of Microsoft. We need to take note. Oh, and I’m using “reptile” in a technical sense :-)
Despite the temptation to believe that some companies are unequivocal supporters of free and open source software, we should never forget that all for-profit companies are actually reptiles, acting instinctively on behalf of their shareholders and not acting on the basis of intellectual or philosophical insight. An expression of support will inevitably be a statement by a group of people within the company, motivated by a business activity. It will have been made in the context of a set of tensions between different priorities and with other groups of people in the same company. It will be the direction instinct has been steered by the availability of “food” and the presence of “threat”. Every expression of support – or act of aggression – needs to be seen in that light.
An important part of my job at Sun was to monitor actions they took that affected communities. I monitored the flow of requests to use and release open source code, ran the Ombudsman service so that I was first to hear of community issues, and acted as a (mostly!) ‘trusted friend’ to Sun’s legal staff prior to any action they took. At regular intervals throughout my five year tenure, I spoke up for communities and ensured that the actions taken in Sun’s name were not harmful to a community or Sun’s FOSS reputation. On some occasions I even had to request executive back-up for my position, in effect requesting a veto power.
Regardless of the merits of IBM’s case against TurboHercules (well summarised on Ars Technica), the fact the incident has happened at all is an important signal. I can’t for a moment believe this is the first time since IBM’s patent pledge that any part of the company has wanted to act against a community participant. We can see the tension between the statement Dan Frye makes through the Linux Foundation and the statement of another IBM spokesperson in the WSJ attempting to say the Pledge doesn’t apply to everyone. To hazard a guess, the competition is now characterised by Google – a huge user of and contributor to open source software – instead of IBM’s old foes, Microsoft and Solaris.
Perhaps IBM doesn’t need the FOSS community as a stick to beat its foes any more? Regardless, this action tells us that there is now no FOSS advocacy function at IBM with the authority to veto actions against open source. I hope IBM will categorically say I am wrong about this, but until they do all of us need to take note of this development and keep asking.
[More on this subject here]