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FOSS folk who make us proud

Five days ago, three members of the free and open source software community finally heaved a sigh of relief and wiped the sweat from their brows after winning a battle they had waged for years.
Samba developers Andrew Tridgell, Jeremy Allison and Volker Lendecke have, along with some intrepid investigators from the European Union, wrested an agreement with Microsoft that specifies that every one of Microsoft's network protocols which are used to work with Windows Server will be provided to a newly formed body, the Protocol Freedom Information Foundation.

The three Samba geeks got involved in Sun Microsystem's 1998 complaint to the European Commission over Microsoft's refusal to provide the necessary documentation so that Sun could create software that could work seamlessly with Microsoft Active Directory.

The complaint was filed after Microsoft said nay to a request from Sun for this information - despite the fact that Microsoft has to provide such information due to the anti-trust laws in place.

Tridgell, like the brilliant scientist he is, has provided a marvellously detailed and simple explanation of the entire saga and also his interpretation of how the agreement will work. I can't better that, so the source, as always, is provided.

But there are four paragraphs from the Samba team's announcement about the deal which need to be reproduced here, four paragraphs which, more or less, say it all:

"After paying Microsoft a one-time sum of 10,000 Euros, the PFIF will make available to the Samba Team under non-disclosure terms the documentation needed for implementation of all of the workgroup server protocols covered by the EU decision.

"Although the documentation itself will be held in confidence by the PFIF and Samba Team engineers, the agreement allows the publication of the source code of the implementation of these protocols without any further restrictions. This is fully compatible with versions two and three of the GNU General Public License (GPL). Samba is published under the GNU GPL which is the most widely used of all Free Software licenses. In addition it allows discussion of the protocol information amongst implementers which will aid technical cooperation between engineers.

"Under the agreement, Microsoft is required to make available and keep current a list of patent numbers it believes are related to the Microsoft implementation of the workgroup server protocols, without granting an implicit patent license to any Free Software implementation.

"No per-copy royalties are required from the PFIF, Samba developers, third party vendors or users and no acknowledgement of any patent infringement by Free Software implementations is expressed or implied in the agreement."

So, after beginning the year with the deeds of a bunch of cowards at Novell fresh in the mind, at year's end we have some heroes, people devoted to the ideals of FOSS, developers who can really call themselves men. Man, does it gladden the heart, especially at this time of the year.



Just read what Tridgell, Allison and Lendecke went through - and contrast it with the craven way in which the GNOME Foundation is trying to deal with the OOXML issue. Chalk and cheese, did I hear you say? Black and white? Cowards and heroes, is probably a better way to describe it.

Let's remember that Allison resigned from Novell on a matter of principle after the company signed its patent deal with Microsoft. Of course, the cynics would say that Allison could do it - he is eminently employable. They would be missing the point - if that is the case why didn't people like Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman also resign on the same principle? Are you going to tell me that they cannot get equally good employment? (I actually doubt whether they need to be employed any more but that's a different issue).

The European authorities deserve a standing ovation, too. Would this have happened in the US? Never. The EU people involved never blinked; there were various stages after the judgement - that Microsoft would have to provide protocol documentation - when Microsoft announced that it had met the necessary requirements. But the EU did not take this as gospel; instead, it went through the detail and pushed for complete compliance. Finally, Redmond had to bend over.

Tridgell cites Red Hat's Alan Cox, and the FSF's Eben Moglen and Carlo Piana as playing a crucial role. These, again, are unsung heroes of the FOSS community - you hear of them but rarely while spinmeisters poke their face into the camera every single day.

Some craven American commentators are seeing the Samba deal as evidence that "that there are groups within Microsoft who are willing to work in good faith with the free software world.."

(I think it does rankle a bit with our American friends that it was the EU that managed to whip Microsoft into some kind of compliance.)

I've got some news for this bunch of brown-nosers - Microsoft only negotiates when it has no other way out. If it can wriggle out any other way, it will. It's a good idea to do some holiday reading and research the history of this convicted monopolist.

Everyone in the community owes Tridgell, Allison and Lendeck a big debt. They can stand tall - as developers, role models and as simple good human beings.

I have never met any of this trio - but if I do, I'll bend down and touch their feet in the ultimate Indian gesture of respect, the respect we show to people whom we class as gurus. And I mean guru in its traditional Indian meaning.

(Apologies to any regular readers for the delay in getting this up but two bereavements in the family haven't made it easy for me to work, especially during this period.)

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.