Free Software Crystal Ball 2008

By Bruce Byfield | Jan 2, 2008 | Print this Page

"You must be mad," Gary Trudeau says in a self-interview in one of his Doonesbury collections, when he raises the subject of political predictions. "I only do post-mortems."

As a journalist, if a very different kind from Trudeau, I appreciate the sentiment. Looking back at 2007, who could have predicted that, after all the posturing by open source advocates, that the new version of the GNU General Public License would have caused so little division? Or that Linspire and Xandros would have followed Novell and made their own deals with Microsoft? Or that virtualization, which was such a hot topic in 2006, would have settled down to just another technology?

Still, despite the dangers of prediction, and the near certainty that I'll miss at least some of the big stories, here's my list of the high and hot spots we're likely to see in free software next year.

KDE 4 launches

2008 will kick off with the long-awaited release of KDE 4 on January 11. Traditionally, a major version number indicates major changes, and KDE 4 will be no exception. Performance, look and layout are all being radically rethought. You can expect some controversy and complaints, but also considerable enthusiasm for the final release.

The End Software Patents Coalition swings into action

A few days after KDE 4 is out the door, the End Software Patent Coalition (ESP) should come out of stealth mode. Bringing together both the Free Software Foundation and a number of undisclosed private companies, ESP is well-funded, and will be trawling for a test case for its goal of abolishing software patents in the United States. You won't find many people defending software patents in the free software community, so ESP won't create much controversy, but you can expect a lot of blogging and news articles about the coalition and the issues it's tackling.

The OOXML controversy continues

OOXML is Microsoft's alleged open standard for office applications, released largely to counter the growing support for Open Document Format, a true open standard. OOXML has thus far failed to become an ECMA or ISO standard, but the groundwork for further discussion and the conditions of the final vote for the EMCA is scheduled for February.

In a larger sense, the vote is meaningless -- Microsoft will use OOXML anyway, and won't adhere to its own standard, if past performance is any indication -- but emotions run high on both sides. Expect both the sober analysts and conspiracy theorists to be out in force.

No matter how the vote turns out, it will be followed by an equally impassioned debate about whether free software should support OOXML. GNOME is already trying to support it -- and receiving flack -- while KDE says that it has no intention of doing so. In the long run, cross-compatibility with Microsoft Office is important enough for applications like that OOXML support seems hard to avoid, but the discussion is already ugly, and will only worsen before the issue is resolved.

DRM flares up again

So-called Digital Rights Management (DRM) quieted as an issue in 2007, and, last summer, there were indications that hardware manufacturers and retailers was turning away from the idea of lock-down technologies. However, the release of Amazon's Kindle reader, the efforts at copyright reform in Canada, and the steady rise in the user-base for Windows Vista (which will undoubtedly becomes the most ubiquitous example of DRM in most people's lives) all indicate that the subject is ripe for re-emergence.

In fact, just as I was typing the above paragraph, I received an email from the Defective By Design campaign, which has led so much of the DRM-opposition in the past two years. The campaign is obviously preparing for a busy year.

The first complete free video drivers appear

Free video drivers capable of 3-D acceleration have been at the top of the Free Software Foundation's high priority list for several years. 2008 may very well be the year in which this goal is achieved. The Nouveau project is working hard to provide free 3-D drivers for NVidia cards, while the Avivo project and AMD/ATI are doing the same for ATI cards. The breakthrough will likely occur somewhere past the halfway point in the year.

3-D desktop distros become the default in some distributions

To some extent, this trend depends on the arrival of free video drivers, but, if they don't materialize, users of 3-D desktops like Beryl/Compiz will simply use proprietary drivers instead. 3-D desktops don't help you get your work done any more efficiently, but the Wow factor is simply too great for many users to resist them. Many already include 3-D desktops as an option, but being the first to use one as the default will gain some lucky distribution a moment of one-upmanship.

However, the main drawback to 3-D desktops continues to be that older machines can't handle them. For this reason, while they are likely to become more common in the coming year, they aren't going to threaten the traditional desktops just yet.

Next page: Preloads, Java, GPL and OLPC

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GNU/Linux preloads continue, but sluggishly

In 2007, Dell made headlines by offering Ubuntu pre-loaded on some machines. The event was rightly considered a milestone, and Lenovo has already announced that it will pre-load SUSE on some models next year.

Probably, one or two other companies will do the same, just so they won't look as though they're lagging behind competitors. However, my guess is that these efforts will do little to encourage the use of GNU/Linux on the desktop. As a community, we have a strong viewpoint and aren't shy about expressing it, but our organization gives us influence beyond our numbers. Considering that the average computer user isn't likely to switch from Windows any time soon, and that most free software advocates prefer to do their own installs, none of these pre-installs are likely to be a huge money-maker -- or even heavily advertised.

At most, these efforts will only add a percentage point or two to the GNU/Linux desktop numbers. And if the bottom line becomes troubled for Dell or Lenovo, guess what will get cut first?

Java becomes totally free

Since Sun announced that it was releasing the source code for Java in November 2006, an entire community has emerged dedicated to producing a free implementation of Java. About 95% of the code has been released, and the community is working to provide a substitution for the rest, most of which Sun licenses from third parties and therefore can't release the code for.

This missing code amounts to a quarter of a million lines of code, and includes such functions as the font rasterizer, the graphics rasterizer, color management, plugin support, and sound.

Sometime, probably in the last half of 2008, the final work in replacing these missing pieces will be finished. The exact moment will pass unnoticed, but a free implementation of Java will be announced a month or two afterwards. Then we'll see if Java can become a major challenger to .NET and Mono.

One Laptop Per Child achieves first widespread deployments

One Laptop per Child (OLPC), whose goal is to deliver sturdy, cheap computers loaded with free software to developing countries, is a project that many people love to hate. And it is true that food and clothing may seem like more immediate priorities in many regions. Personally, though, I've always thought it a case of people helping out where they could -- after all, geeks know more about computers than agriculture or textile manufacturing. Besides, in the long-term, the possibilities for education may do more to eliminate poverty than responding to the latest crisis.

However, no matter how you feel about the project, its computers are being manufactured and widespread deployment will begin shortly. You can expect hostile pundits to seize on every technical problem, and every sign of corruption, but, by the end of the year, we should be in a position to start judging OLPC. It will be a couple more years before the final verdict is in, but 2008 is when it truly boots up.

The GNU General Public License becomes an issue for new debates

After the outspoken reactions by Linus Torvalds and some of the kernel developers, many people were surprised when the release of the third version of the GNU General Public License in late June 2007 didn't cause the community to fragment. However, there were good reasons for this lack of reaction: Most projects weren't about to release a new version simply to change the license, and many wanted to wait and see.

But in 2008, new versions will be released, and projects will be unable to put off their decision any longer. In particular, sooner or later, someone may try to submit a contribution to the Linux kernel either under the newest version or dual-licensed with the older version. I suspect the new version will eventually prevail in most project, simply because it addresses concerns that the older one doesn't, but, until it does, all the old animosities and pieces of rhetoric are going to be voiced repeatedly.

Something that I can't imagine

These predictions are mostly extensions of issues that already exist, so they are hardly daring. But if nine years of using free software and watching the community has taught me anything, it's to expect the unexpected.

Undoubtedly, we'll see issues in 2008 that nothing in 2007 could have prepared us for -- and the free software community as a whole will continue to be an innovative, unruly and outspoken diversity of opinions and interests that commands our affections as much as our frequent exasperation.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Datamation, where this story first appeared, as well as and Linux Journal.