Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Unix Wars: The More Things Change...

Writing from the O'Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON) a couple of days back, I noted that many of today's debates are taking place in a very different milieu than the Unix Wars that helped spawn Open Source (or more precisely Richard Stallman's "Free Software" in the first place.

However, as Dennis Byron, notes:

Truth in advertising, Gordon--like me--is a "Grey Eagle" (Data General alum), which in addition to meaning that he went through the minicomputer wars, also means that--like me--he has probably seen it all before. It is not surprising then that his and my sense of OSS history agree even though we have never spoken about it. There is one place we differ. He says, "We’re now moving to a world increasingly distant in time and place from the Unix wars." I think the interminable debates about GPL vs other licenses, the Novell/Microsoft agreement, free vs. open, and so forth are just a continuation of the UNIX wars. The AT&T legal issues he talks about have never really been settled.

There's a lot of truth in what Dennis says. There are threads of past debates in today's discussions. For example, the heated debates over attribution clauses in Software as a Service (SaaS) licenses merely recapitulate ancient fights over the so-called "advertising clause" of the original Berkeley license. However, there's even more truth in the macro sense--the sense in which enormous energy is expended over niggling details. To be sure, some of those niggling details can turn out to be incredibly important down the road, but more don't.

Not that this fault is especially the province of the software industry. HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, anyone?

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