Developer Week in Review: These things always happen in threes

The industry loses a third giant, why the GPL hurts FL/OSS, and Steve Jobs goes to the movies.

Fall is being coy this year in the Northeast. We’ve been having on and off spells of very mild, almost summer-like weather over the last few weeks. That trend seems to be finally ending, alas, as there is possible snow forecasted for the weekend in New Hampshire. As the old joke goes, if you don’t like the weather here, just wait five minutes.

The fall also brings hunting to the area. The annual moose season just concluded (you need to enter a special lottery to get a moose permit), but deer season is just about to open. My son and I won’t be participating this year, but we recently purchased the appropriate tools of the trade, a shotgun to hunt in southern NH (where you can’t hunt deer with a rifle) and a Mosin Nagant 91/30 for the rest of the state. The later is probably overkill, but my son saved up his pennies to buy it, being a student of both WWII and all things Soviet. Hopefully, he won’t dislocate his shoulder firing it …

Meanwhile, in the wider world …

John McCarthy: 1927-2011

It’s been a sad month for the computer industry, with the deaths of Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie already fact. Less well known, but equally influential, AI pioneer and LISP creator John McCarthy passed away on Sunday. McCarthy was involved in the creation of two of the preeminent AI research facilities in the world, at MIT and Stanford, and he is generally credited with coining the term “artificial intelligence.”

LISP has had its periods of popularity, peaking in the 1980s, but it’s never been a mainstream language in the way that C, FORTRAN, BASIC or Java was. What people tend to forget is just how old LISP really is. Only FORTRAN, COBOL and ALGOL are older then LISP, which came on the scene in 1958. Many of the concepts we take for granted today, such as closures, first saw light in LISP. It also lives in the hearts of Emacs and AutoCAD, among others, and LISP is the language used in much of the groundbreaking artificial intelligence work.

On a side note, when I first met my wife and told her I was involved in the AI field, she gave me a truly strange look. She had a BA in animal science, you see, and in that field “AI” stands for artificial insemination.

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Someone finally admits the dirty truth about the GPL

If you listen to Richard Stallman, the GPL is all about being a coercive force that will eventually drive all software to be free (as in freedom.) Those of us who watch such things have noticed that it has a paradoxical effect, however. Companies like MySQL (now Oracle) use it the same way that drug dealers offer free samples to new customers. “The first one’s free, but you’ll be back for more.” In other words, they get you hooked by offering a GPL version, but cash in when you want to use their product for commercial purposes because the GPL is too dangerous for most companies.

Now, python developer Zed Shaw has brought the GPL’s dirty little secret into the light of day. In a particularly NSFW rant, Shaw explains why he chooses to use the GPL these days. In short, it’s because he’s sick of developers at companies getting to be heroes by using his stuff and getting the glory. “I use the GPL to keep you honest. You now have to tell your bosses you’re using my gear. And it will scare the piss out of them.” He goes on to say that he’s using the GPL as a stick to force companies to pay him to use his software.

This goes right to the very core of the debate about what free/open software should be about. Is it a tool to make all software free? Is it a way to allow “good” people (i.e., non-commercial users) to have access while punishing “bad” people (professional developers)? Personally, I’m thrilled that Southwest Airlines uses a Java library I created for another client years ago and open sourced, but evidently some people (especially those who aren’t getting paid to maintain open-source projects by a day job) want to get paid for their efforts.

I find the logic a bit questionable. I don’t see a lot of difference between a free software developer who holds corporate users’ feet to the fire and a commercial software developer. Sure, it still allows hobbyists and educational users to use the software for free, but it’s actually acting to discourage companies from getting involved in FL/OSS by encouraging the wrong model. When companies use open-source software in their products, they are more likely to contribute back to the project and to open source other non-critical code they produce. If they are paying a developer for it, they are much less likely to contribute back.

The Steve Jobs movie: I predict lots of people walking and talking

With the Steve Jobs biography currently sitting at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, Sony Pictures is wasting no time getting a film adaptation underway. The current buzz is that Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing and winner of the Academy Award for his adaptation of “The Social Network,” is on the short list to write the screenplay.

It would be interesting to see how Sorkin would tackle Jobs’ story, full and complex as it is. One approach might be to leave out the ’80s, already covered to some degree in “Pirates of Silicon Valley,” and concentrate instead on his youth and the last 15 years of his life. One can only hope that the technological details are not hopelessly mangled in an attempt to make it accessible.

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