November 2006 might be remembered as a deciding month for Free Software: Novell and Microsoft agree that Novell should pay Microsoft for every single SuSE distribution they sell, a deal that is potentially in conflict with the GNU General Public License (GPL) and that raises questions about the long-term survival of Novell. Shortly after, SUN Microsystems finally makes the long-awaited announcement to release its Java technology as Free Software under the GNU GPL, releasing millions of users from the Java trap — and on the same day, the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) announces its Freedom Task Force (FTF).
Contrary to possible perception, there is no connection in timing between the latter two events, but there is a connection between all of this: We are witnessing the next transformation of the Free Software ecosystem, with all the changes that will bring. Why does this change happen now?
Free Software has grown substantially, and that growth makes frontal opposition unsustainable in various ways: Microsoft’s denial of the success and strength of Free Software increasingly was percieved publicly as a denial of reality, and the pressure on them was increasing.
In particular the work of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) in cooperation with the Samba team to support the antitrust investigation of the European Commission and its court case has greatly increased the pressure on Microsoft and has done so with a remarkable efficiency: Even while operating on a very small budget of around 100k EUR per year, FSFE has managed to bring the Samba team to the table to provide the necessary technical advice to the European Commission, resulting in a record fine of roughly 500m EUR, and another fine of 280.5m EUR when Microsoft refused to release the required interoperability information.
Microsoft furthermore spent around 2bn EUR to convince SUN to leave the case, as well as 500m EUR on Novell and 20m EUR on the CCIA. FSFE was one of two groups involved in this from the beginning, and standing strong the entire time, causing Bloomberg crediting FSFE with having had a 500m EUR impact on Microsofts stock. Given that the Microsoft case is only one of many activities that FSFE has been running throughout the past years, the efficiency seems unrivalled.
So trying to get one Free Software vendor to sign a deal with Microsoft made sense in various ways: It allows them to look a little more resonable in the evaluation of Free Software in the marketplace, it allows them to weaken a potential competitor, and it could help open attack venues that did not exist before. So Microsoft’s move was a logical consequence of the increasing success of Free Software.
The same is true for SUN Microsystems, only in a good way. SUN has gone a long way in understanding that entering the race on proprietary standards and technologies is a race that can only know one winner, and it won’t be SUN. So finally releasing Java under a Free Software license, and in particular the GNU GPL, will allow them to enter the necessary transformation towards a company in a Free Software economy, based on customer value, service, and freedom of choice.
Even more significant than OpenOffice.org for the desktop, Java is a fundamental technology with a very large install-base around the world and a rich ecosystem of products and companies. All of these are going to benefit from SUNs move, and they will do this at a time when Microsoft apparently has problems gettings its Vista and .NET technologies fully under control.
In consequence, the Free Software ecosystem is undergoing transformation. It becomes larger, faster and more complex, but also much, much richer. And this is where the Freedom Task Force comes into play.
While FSFE has always engaged in political and legal activity at the highest level, the FTF supports the stability and growth of the ecosystem by its fiduciary licensing activities, and helps legal professionals and enterprises navigate this rapidly changing environment.
Miyamoto Musashi once said that success comes from doing the right thing at the right time, and in the right way. I see the Freedom Task Force fulfilling all three criteria. With its flexible, cooperative and multi-cultural approach it will go a long way towards bringing Free Software to the next transformation — the dominance of the Free Software model.