Top 10 Open Source Stories Of 2008

Dec 20, 2008 (02:12 AM EST)

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The year 2008 showed open source -- both in the form of Linux specifically and as a software development model generally -- coming into the mainstream like never before. When it wasn't powering new hardware niches like the netbook, it was forming the core of Google's new Android mobile operating system or its Chrome browser, and sitting at the center of legal wrangling with wide-ranging repercussions.

Here are the top highlights of the past year in the open source arena.

1. The Rise (And Falling Price) Of The Netbook

Linux-powered and budget-priced, the ASUS Eee PC and its successors proved that you didn't need a full-blown notebook computer to get work done. A netbook gets you Internet connectivity, word processing, and a slew of other common tasks -- all in a machine that cost around $350 or so. Even if later models of the Eee and other netbooks came with Windows XP as an option, that wasn't enough to kill the buzz for inexpensive Linux-powered devices. Netbooks also proved to be a better bet than Linux-powered desktop PCs at the same price point: why pay the same for a machine that doesn't even come with a display?

The race to the bottom with netbook prices hasn't stopped yet -- in fact, it's barely gotten started. As of this writing, consumer-electronics maker Coby is planning a $99 netbook. That's about a low a price floor as you can go to without subsidizing the sales in some fashion (e.g., a wireless data plan, as per cell phones).

2. Sun's Slow Spiraling Towards Nova

No, Sun hasn't gone nova quite yet, but it's getting mighty hot. Despite slumping sales, heavy layoffs, a tanking stock price, and customers hoofing it to other pastures (mainly Linux), Sun has beat relentlessly on its commitment to open solutions as a possible way out for both them and their stockholders.

One can't say they haven't tried. OpenOffice, under their sponsorship, released the long-awaited, if only incrementally revised, version 3. Solaris itself was open-sourced and, this year, released in a desktop-friendly implementation. And -- most significantly -- Sun bought MySQL AB, a move which ignited as much contention as it did enthusiasm among fans of both companies. Does this mean MySQL would go down with the ship if Sun implodes, or signal a change in direction for both companies?

3. The Release Of Ubuntu 8.10 And Fedora 10

Flagship distributions of Linux don't get any more prominent than Ubuntu and Fedora, and this year both of them hit major milestones. Ubuntu 8.10 brought the distribution -- one which for many people is Linux -- to a new level of usability and reliability, and added goodies like better mobile networking and the ability to build a mobile USB edition from an install CD.

Fedora, Red Hat's non-commercial distribution, also got a new revision and now sports: a new startup system; better remote-provisioning features; wireless connection sharing; and Firstaidkit, a rescue utility designed to preserve as much user data as possible in the event of a system-gobbling disaster. If 2008 hasn't been the long-vaunted "year of the Linux desktop," it ought to be.

4. The Release Of Google Chrome

"What, another Web browser?" Those were my own words, unedited, when Google released the first edition of its Chrome browser. I was, and still am, deeply skeptical about the idea of using Chrome -- or any Web browser, really -- as a cross-platform portal to replace the applications we use on our desktops with 'Net-powered equivalents.

But never mind all that. Chrome's aptly named: it shines. It's fast, cleanly designed, and even in its 0.3 / 0.4 revisions shows remarkable engineering savvy: no more problems in one window or tab locking up the whole browser. One major flaw, aside from its relative lack of development, is that currently it's for Windows only.

Even if it doesn't turn into the portal for Google's vision of Web-meets-the-desktop, it may well be as much a challenge to Firefox as Firefox was to IE (and the older Netscape) -- competition for the competition.

5. The Release Of Google Android

Plain and simple: mobile Linux came of age in 2008 with the introduction of Google's long-heralded Android OS. Even if Android was still a tad raw, and even if Android-powered phones like the HTC G1 are still overshadowed by the iPhone, Android gave people a glimpse of what an open handset system could really provide. It's a first step, and like most first steps it's tentative and tottering.

And since the tools are in everyone's hands now, not just Google's, that step's a much bigger one than it might seem. It might prove to be salvation for the likes of Motorola, now looking to ditch their homegrown (and notoriously lackluster) phone operating system in favor of something that might better complement their hardware designs -- although Motorola may just elect to go with...

6. Nokia Picks Up Symbian

... Symbian. Which, in one of the more surprising open source developments of the past year -- and a complement to Google's own mobile open source play -- Nokia snapped up Symbian and pledged to make it available for free under the terms of the Eclipse Public License.

This year's developments have been all preliminary for Nokia and Symbian; actual handsets aren't expected until 2009 or so. (By contrast, the first Android phone is out right now.)

Aside from Motorola, other big-name phone folks like Sony Ericsson, AT&T, DoCoMo, and Samsung are hopping on board. From the look of it, Android may be the more programmer- and hacker-friendly environment, while Symbian is the more carrier- and handset-maker-friendly. Either way, it's become that much harder for phone makers and carriers to stick with closed architectures.

7. Courts Rule That Copyrights On Open Source Software Are Enforceable

Those worried that open source licensing conventions might not stick in a court of law breathed a little easier when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit handed down a ruling earlier this year. The decision for Jacobsen vs. Katzer made it clear that not upholding the provisions of an open source license is an infringement of the original code creator's copyrights. Open source advocates, including Creative Commons license creator Lawrence Lessig (whose work was cited by the circuit court's decision), were thrilled.

The financial stakes in this particular case weren't momentous -- they involved model railroad software for hobbyists, not exactly a big-ticket software market -- but the implications were wide-ranging. Since most previous legal tangles over open source have ended short of actually going to court, this much of a precedent is a huge boon.

8. Linux Developer Hans Reiser Convicted Of First-Degree Murder

It sounded too bizarre and lurid to be true, but horribly enough, it was. Hans Reiser, the creator of the Linux filesystem ReiserFS, was convicted of murdering his estranged wife and hiding her body. His defense attempted to explain away the preponderance of evidence against him as the quirky behavior of an eccentric if gifted man. It didn't work, and not long after that Reiser led police to where he'd buried the body in the hopes of obtaining a reduced sentence.

What's striking about the case is the fate of ReiserFS itself. Thanks to the project being open source, it'll continue. Even if future editions of ReiserFS lose out to competing filesystems like ext4 and the upcoming btrfs, it'll be due to technical merit and not the stigma from Reiser's murder conviction. Such is the way open source grants a new lease on life to its projects.

9. Debian's OpenSSL Blunder

The maintainers of the Debian distribution of Linux got an unpleasant surprise when they found that their implementation of the openssl encryption package, used to protect data transmitted to and from secured web sites, had a major bug. Bad enough that not only were existing encryption keys at risk of being compromised, but that keys generated by Debian's openssl since 2006 were equally weak.

The problem was quickly fixed, along with instructions for how to generate new encryption keys to replace the weakened ones, but the whole incident served as a strong cautionary reminder. One of open source's biggest pluses is transparency: anyone can look through the code and spot a problem ... but only if they're competent to do so, and if they know what they're hunting for. Many eyes may make bugs shallow, but they also need to be open and looking in the right direction first.

10. SCO Loses To Novell

Put a subtitle on this one: "And this time, we mean it." After an endless stream of back-and-forth in the courts that would've tested the patience of the Dalai Lama, SCO's scrap with Novell over the rights to UNIX has taken what seems to be its last punch to the chin.

Not only does SCO owe Novell a ton of money, but three of SCO's most important claims were dismissed with prejudice, never to be seen again. An appeal is said to be in the works, but given that IBM and Red Hat still have pending litigation (and IBM will most likely devour the husk that's left over from this one), SCO would be hard-pressed to find anyone who recognizes their initials to give them any kind of a new lease on life.