Summary: The author of the popular XFolder enhancement utility speaks out on what his reasons were for switching to an Open Source model, and makes a plea for other freeware developers to do the same.
Back in September of 1998, XFolder V0.80 was released. As opposed to previous versions, that version was placed under the GNU General Public License (GPL), which implied that the source code was released. All other software I have written since then has also been placed under the GPL: this includes INF2HTML and the WarpIN alpha versions which have been released so far.
If you are a user of my software, you might already have wondered what the GPL does for OS/2 and why I now stress the licensing issue so much with my own software. Well, there has been quite some debate in the OS/2 world about licensing models recently. I won't go into all of this here; read Chris Wright's articles in OS/2 e-Zine! vol. 4 no. 1 for more details.
But as a summary, the GPL is a general license agreement which was developed by the Free Software Foundation to protect the rights of programmers who wish to publish the source code of their software. The GPL is most frequently used with software of the GNU project and has become more widely known with the evolution of Linux, to most parts of which the GPL applies.
Software which has been placed under the GPL is frequently called OpenSource software. While there are other licenses which can also be called OpenSource, the GPL is the most popular one. (As a side note: The term "OpenSource" is now a registered trademark to prevent misuse of it. That's why I think this term is now preferred over "Free Software". Check http://www.opensource.org for details.)
In this article, I'd like add my personal view on licensing issues and explain why I now think that OpenSource is the software model which might turn out to be a main condition for OS/2 to survive at all (as a non-server OS, that is).
As a consequence I'd like to convince all OS/2 freeware developers to release their source codes, preferably as OpenSource. But I'm not preaching to commercial developers here; there's a lot of shareware out there which is really worth the money and I do not envy developers who do earn money through it. Out of the many, just think of PMMail and PMView, which are among the best on any platform.
However, there are a lot of freeware programmers out there who have so far not released their sources. I will not list them, you know who you are. It is you that I'd like to address with this article.
Why I Released My Sources
In my view, there are two main models of distributing software. Many people will draw the line between software you have to pay for and software you don't. That's what I used to think, too.
The real distinction however, and this is important for OS/2's future, is between software which is shipped with the source code and software which is not.
The problem with OS/2 however is that releasing source code seems like some kind of threat to developers, who feel a lot like Windows programmers in this respect. Source code is something they feel they "own" and that they'd prefer to keep private. It's a bit like letting people look into your diary.
Before releasing XFolder's source code (that is, before V0.80), I had the same feeling. I spent three weeks reflecting on whether to release the sources, and I considered the pros and cons.
Back then, the key reason for me to publish the source code was that XFolder has become a fairly complex application by now, and it had become increasingly difficult to find bugs, because many of these simply do not show up with my system configuration, and I am not willing to buy new hardware just to debug XFolder. I hoped that with the sources some users would be able to find bugs in the code themselves.
The reason for choosing the GPL for the license was that it's nicely complex, and this appealed to me as a soon-to-be lawyer. But seriously, the main reason was that it seemed to give my sources a bit of protection against "code theft"
Why OpenSource Will Help OS/2 In General
My focus has changed since then. I have done a lot more reading on OpenSource software, am following some of the discussions in the Linux world, and by now I have almost half a year of experience with this concept from a developer's perspective. From my perception, there are many more advantages to the OpenSource concept which should convince any freeware programmer to release his/her sources.
The most pressing problem with OS/2 is that there aren't as many home users left as used to be in the "golden days" when Warp 3 came out and IBM did indeed care about the home user market. Most people would agree that this situation won't ever come back again, and this is the reason why many software developers (especially commercial ones) are moving away from OS/2, either to Windows or to Linux, whatever preference they have.
So the key question is this (and this question is not for developers only; OS/2 and OS/2 users need software, and this has to be written): How do we get more and better software even though OS/2's reputation has reached an all-time low and we have less programmers than before?
In my view, there are three conclusions to be drawn from the current situation.
I have been talking about this to a number of developers recently. Many times I hear, "Well, I do appreciate the OpenSource idea, but my sources are just too ugly to be released. I haven't commented anything."
This is the "diary objection." I admit that I had the same feeling with XFolder V0.80. See, I only started C and PM/WPS programming with XFolder; before that, I used Borland Pascal 7.0 for DOS/Windows and REXX only. Last year, I feared too that some C++-SOM-OO-WPS-Smalltalk guru would come up and laugh at me.
But believe me, this won't happen.
Obviously, clean, commented sources are better than ugly, uncommented ones. But then: ugly, uncommented sources are better than no sources at all. And maybe someone will take a look at your code and try to understand what's going on by commenting out things. That's what I have done with some of the sources I found on the Net and which are now part of XFolder.
Besides, if you look at the sources of XFolder V0.80 and compare it to the current ones (V0.84 at the time of writing), you'll see that I've cleaned up a lot of things during the last half year. Lots more comments have been added, and the structure of the code has been straightened out a great deal, mostly because the code has been split into many more files to make its function more lucid. What I'm trying to say is that the publicity of your source code is also a motivation to clean things up. In this process, I have found quite a number of bugs and memory leaks in XFolder, which maybe I wouldn't have found without this motivation. Trying to re-understand your own code sometimes does help.
To finalize this, I do think that the only chance for OS/2 to survive is that at least the freeware developers who are writing software today must switch to using an OpenSource license, no matter how ugly the sources are.
It is worth it, even if only one person finds a bug in your code. And even if this doesn't happen, maybe one year from now there'll be someone who will use your code to build something even better. Better still, some novice developer might find a reason to start programming.
And even if you don't like the OpenSource idea (despite the arguments I have listed above), please seek a way to publish your source code anyway, under a different license if need be.
Let's release sources now before it's too late.
Open Source software may be the only future OS/2 has. Have you got any reason why not to follow this model yourself? Talk about it in our interactive forum. Selected feedback will be posted below.
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