Should RISC OS be open sourced?By Chris Williams. Published: 15th Oct 2005, 13:20:18 | Permalink | Printable
The big question the jury are still debatingEditorial The debate over whether or not RISC OS should be open sourced took another turn this week when Peter Naulls argued that "certain parts" of the OS could be released under an open source licence. The State-side coder behind various ports including Firefox said this would ideally include "crucial parts that affect all users, even if they don't realise it, parts that can be created from scratch and made much better than the Acorn original, and parts which can managed by specific developers who already understand them well."
Peter gave SharedCLibrary as an example. This is a critical component in the OS, as it provides basic, standard functionality to applications typically written in C, which is a popular language on RISC OS. RISCOS Ltd. and Castle ship different versions of the SCL module with their streams of the operating system, each with their own bugs and benefits. Application developers have to make a decision on which SCL version is required for their software, and political use of the SCL has irritated some. An open source version of the SCL could, Peter theorises, have alleviated these troubles. How an open source SCL is managed is an essential consideration though, as releases must be tested and tested again before software developers and users can rely on them.
His other suggestion that RISCOS Ltd. could open source parts of Select to assist in development and migration of RISC OS 4 to the Iyonix might cause others (particularly ROL management) to choke on their coffee. Although open source software projects have the potential to harness collaborative development and fault finding, there's still the psychological barrier that you're giving away work for free to overcome. There's no guarantee of profit or any sort of return on investment, despite the widely held belief that selling support is a good way to produce a cash turn over. Every so often we hear of companies who take the plunge and bravely commit to open sourcing their software, and it was Xara's turn this week. I'm personally sitting on the fence regarding the open source versus closed source debate, as it really depends on the circumstances of each individual project.
Paul Middleton, ROL MD, said, "It is one thing to release software as open source so that people can look at the source code and help sort out the troublesome problems that 'many hands can make light work of'. It is completely another to simply say that the source should be freely available to anyone to do with as they like."
He added: "It might be feasible to make Paint, Draw, etc open source but given the very limited amount of interest that the Printers+ release drew, I wouldn't make it a high priority, or put great expectations on it."
ROL released the source code to Printers+, the 'front end' of the RISC OS 4 printing system, in 2003, which was maintained by the late David Marston. During the legal stand off last summer, Castle made it clear that they preferred it if the Printers+ source code wasn't available. Paul also had reservations regarding the fragmentation seen in the open source world, such as the number of different Linux distributions and end user support nightmare entailed from that situation.
Whether or not a project is suitable for open sourcing could very well depend on whether or not the project can achieve a 'critical mass' of users. With suitable interest, it can be easier to entice programmers to contribute code and fix problems, which then attracts more interest. Minority, general purpose operating systems tend to be open source for various reasons, with perhaps the exception of SkyOS, and this includes BeOS influenced Haiku-OS which recently gained its first full-time employee.
When asked if small operating systems can only survive in the wide world by being open source, Haikunews.org editor Chris Simmons said, "I think making any project open source, including small OS's, lends itself well to development, so my first answer is a firm 'yes'.
"If Be Inc. had open sourced [BeOS] those many years ago there might have been a greater chance for success, only if they had truly focused on the desktop aspect and not ventured into the BeIA, focus-shift idea."
Of course, the debate on open sourcing RISC OS will continue to wage between free software idealists and old school developers. Meanwhile, the OS continues to be enhanced by a one way tide of open source code, from USB and graphics drivers to Internet accessibility.
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