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Chris Wright- by Christopher B. Wright
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Christopher B. Wright is a technical writer in the Richmond, VA area, and has been using OS/2 Warp since January 95. He is also a member of Team OS/2.

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Open What?

Should OS/2 become a GPL'd operating system? This is a question I've heard on and off for quite some time now. It's been mentioned, occasionally, within the electronic pages of OS/2 e-Zine! It was discussed among some of us at Warpstock. It's been talked pretty much to death on Usenet in the comp.os.os2.* groups, and it's become a mantra for a lot of people who are so disgusted with the way the IBM Pointy-Haired Bosses have manhandled OS/2 that they'd rather IBM weren't associated with it any more.

The idea of an open-sourced OS/2 is a seductive one. I admire the intent, idea and ideology behind the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Public License. I believe that free software must be the future if we are ever to have a society where all people can use computers, instead of the predominantly rich and upper-middle-class professionals who use them now. Open source is the only way I can think of to successfully combat the emergence of a technocracy, an elite group of technologically savvy people who have a disproportionate amount of power in the day to day workings of society.

But OS/2? Open source? Would IBM swing that way? I don't think so. While I can think of a few arguments why IBM would benefit from an open source OS/2, I don't see anyone convincing them. The Pointy-Haired Bosses at IBM -- not the developers or project managers, mind you, but the office sitting, Perrier-swilling suits who are too high up the corporate ladder to fire any fewer than 4,000 people at a time -- don't or won't understand why open source is good for the computer business, and will simply assume that relinquishing your exclusive rights on developing something you used to own means not making any money.

There are a lot of good people at IBM. There are a lot of people at IBM who have developed for OS/2 for a long time, who like OS/2, and who want to see it be more than what it is right now. Most of these people have actually worked on it at one time or another. There are also a lot of people who have only seen the word "OS/2" on a piece of paper, don't know it from 10,000,000 other IBM projects, and are simply interested in pursuing strategies that will keep IBM in the black.

I can't really blame them for this. IBM is not out to save the world, after all, they're out to make money. This is a very straightforward though somewhat mercenary and less-than-idealistic position to take, and while I'd rather they be something else -- an idealistic corporation dedicated to bettering the world, ending war and hunger, and inventing a form of muzak that doesn't drive me into a bloodthirsty rage in dental offices -- I can understand that they are, after all, interested in making money and making their stockholder's happy.

IBM SUIT: We've decided to take OS/2, a very stable and technologically advanced operating system, and release it's source code over the internet so that people will be able to use it for free.


(Sound of breaking glass as IBM Suit is thrown out of the fire window on the 36th floor).

I don't think IBM would go for it. I'm not opposed to trying, but I really don't know how to go about doing this.

Who do you talk to when you're trying to go about this?

CHRIS WRIGHT: Hello, I'd like to talk to Lou Gerstner, please.


CHRIS WRIGHT: I'd like to talk to him about releasing the OS/2 source code under the GNU Public License.

IBM SUIT: I don't think so. His office is on the 50th floor, and his desk is right next to the fire window.

Corporate culture being what it is, I don't think the suits are quite ready to delve into the world of open source just yet. I have heard rumors that IBM is planning to release a new version of UNIX -- apparently, AIX wasn't proprietary enough for their tastes -- but I've never heard of them even considering releasing a Linux distribution. That would be an interesting conversation to listen in on:

IBM PROGRAM MANAGER: We'd like to distribute a version of Linux.

IBM SUIT: What's that? Is it Java?

IBM PROGRAM MANAGER: No, it's an operating system similar to Unix that is distributed under the GNU Public License. It's an open source product that...

(Sound of breaking glass as the IBM Suit throws himself through the fire window on the 40th floor).

I know I'm veering into silliness. My point is, Most companies who develop software look at the concept behind open source and say "we'll never make any money off of this" and will shy away from it. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant; it's a bias that needs to be overcome before anyone will consider taking any steps at all towards open source development. Netscape is the only big company I can think of that has been so bold as to consider it, and they've been getting bashed by a) people in the mainstream industry who think they've all gone insane, and b) people in the open source/free software movement who think they haven't gone far enough.

To veer back onto the point of this column, I don't see an open source OS/2 any time in the near future. I'd like to see, I'd be happy to work towards seeing it, but I don't think it will happen.

For the moment, I continue to use a proprietary operating system in a manner so brazen and shameless that Richard Stallman himself would surely be spinning in his grave; were it not for the fact that he is still, as far as I know, alive and in perfect health. Strangely, I feel remarkably little guilt over this. I love using OS/2; I'm entranced and amazed at its stability, its reliability, and the power of the Workplace Shell. I find it easier to use than Linux, and more consistent than Windows NT. I have installed and uninstalled many operating systems on my machine -- Windows 95, Windows NT, Linux, and BeOS -- but there has always been an OS/2 partition on my machine, except for the time when Windows NT "helpfully" formatted over it and rendered my machine inoperable for three days (but that's another story for another time.)

Open source OS/2 continues to be little more than conversation to fill in the gaps of time between flame wars on Usenet. Whether or not it can ever become anything more than that remains to be seen -- if you have any ideas, please feel free to post them in our interactive forum.

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November 16, 1998