Open-Source: Music to my ears

Today’s New York Times Business section has two stories about digitally-encoded music, “Trying out the Zune: IPod It’s Not” and “Microsoft Strikes Deal for Music.”

The first is a review of Microsoft’s new IPod cometitor, Zune. It’s not particularly favorable, and points out this is Microsoft’s second head-on attack on Apple’s IPod. The first was something called PlaysForSure. It has been so un-successful that Microsoft is now bringing out Zune. The article says in part;

“Yahoo might change the address of its D.R.M. server, and we can’t control that,” said Scott Erickson, a Zune product manager. (Never mind what a D.R.M. server is: the point is that Microsoft blames its partners for the technical glitches.)

Is Microsoft admitting, then, that PlaysForSure was a dud? All Mr. Erickson will say is, “PlaysForSure works for some people, but it’s not as easy as the Zune.”

So now Microsoft is starting over. Never mind all the poor slobs who bought big PlaysForSure music collections. Never mind the PlaysForSure companies who now find themselves competing with their former leader. Their reward for buying into Microsoft’s original vision? A great big “So long, suckas.”

Neither article makes direct mention of open-source, it’s just about two companies competing in an important area.

But two other recent competitive announcements are all about open-source: Oracle and Red Hat, Microsoft and Novell.

These two remind us that open-source is all grown-up. It has become so valuable that it can play a key role in major corporate initiatives, in which one corporation attempts to gain an advantage over another by skillful use of open-source.

And there is all the recent buzz about Sun licensing Java under GPL. For example, posted a story earlier today Sun Set To Move On GPL License For Open-Source Java (Dr. Dobb’s Portal). It has provoked some reaction in the form of over 20 user comments.

I posted some of those comments to the piece, trying to make the case that we would all be better off, and as developers would have more freedom of action, if Sun were to use the Apache 2 license. [1] This provoked several comments, the gist of which was that GPL was better because it promoted a better sense of community.

It’s worth noting that while Sun seems to be favoring the GPL, another manufacturer, Motorola, favors the Apache license. See Motorola speeds open source momentum with Apache, which reports that

Motorola will build a Java ME (Micro Edition) software stack using the Apache License Version 2.0, claiming this will help unify the market. It also aims to align its future Java ME-based development with Apache’s model of licensing and open governance.

Which makes one wonder. If true, is Sun’s choice of GPL about community, or just a way to compete with Motorola?

But thinking about the Microsoft maneuver targeted against Apple’s IPod made me realize that open-source is in play, because while I don’t know of any open-source in the IPod, I know there is lots of open-source in Apples’s “Mac OS X” operating system.

OS X is a variant of Unix licensed — dare I say it — under the BSD license, which has thus allowed Apple to take all the open-source code, adapt it for their hardware, and make the result available in binary-form only, with no right to redistribution. Apple has made a lot of money by that, they have a community of lots of happy customers who are willing to pay for OS X.

Which suggests that if those who believe in GPL and its sense of community and that it is “evil” to not make source available are as ardent in their beliefs as they declare, then they face a dilemma: Do they keep their IPod or do they throw in on the floor, leap up in the air, and then destroy their IPod as their feet land on it?

Some will keep their IPods, others won’t. But I suggest that before some leap up into the air they should download a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence and listen to it, to fully appreciate what they will be giving up as they enter a world of musical silence.

As for me, I’ll just continue listening to Mozart using the open-source program Amarok to play the music that I have digitally-encoded using flac, a freely-available digital music format. [2]

Open-source brings music to my ears.


1. You may not be able to view the comments. makes some content available only to subscribers for the first week after publication. As a subscriber I can see it; you may have to wait a few days.

2. Apple’s music format is not open-source. The standard format, mp3, comes encumbered with patents, which is why some extra steps are needed to play mp3-encoded music. I prefer flac because it is freely available and is also “lossless.” There is loss in fidelity when encoding using either Apple’s format or mp3.


  1. drag
    Posted November 10, 2006 at 01:22 | Permalink | Reply

    Bah, screw Ipods.

    I don’t have a ‘DAP’ (term ‘audiophiles’ use becuase of their distaste of MP3) yet, but if I did I would probably get a IAudio.

    Like a X5
    or F2

    Plusses: Support browsing by ID3 tags. No software needed to generate playlists with some propriatory XML format like with Ipod. Advertises Linux support. Advertises FLAC and Ogg Vorbis support.

    Also people in reviews feel that they give superior audio quality when compared to Ipods.

    And sweet bevis… I can’t beleive that Microsoft didn’t make the Zune compatable with Play4sure. If that doesn’t illistrate the stupidity of DRM then I don’t know what will. Imagine all those Microsoft fanboys that went out and bought music from Microsoft’s online services and now they can’t even play it on their new Zunes? Absolutely amazing.

    “”Which makes one wonder. If true, is Sun’s choice of GPL about community, or just a way to compete with Motorola?””

    Does one prelcude the other? It’s probably most accurately described as “Sun is building a community using the GPL to compete with Motorola”

    Also what sort of benifit would Sun derive from denying Motorola’s Java ME? How would that hurt Sun?

    The only thing I can think of is that Motorola’s implimentation may not be completely compatable with Sun’s java and thus introduce subtle difficulties for programmers using Java.

    Also from Motorola’s point of view.. if Sun does the dual license for it’s micro Java impliemntations then doesn’t that fuffill 95% of the point of doing their Apache-licensed effort?

    If I was Motorola at this point I would probably be thankfull to Sun for saving me a crapload of work. (that is of course if Sun actually goes through with this)

    When I first heard Motorola’s effort the first thing I thought of is why they decided to go their own way rather then help out with the existing GCJ and Classpath stuff that is relatively complete anyways, (unless of course that stuff is not suitable for cell phones or whatnot. )

    Sun could of just saved a lot of people a whole lot of work.

  2. Dalibor Topic
    Posted November 10, 2006 at 02:33 | Permalink | Reply

    Apache community … yeah, right. Been there, done that. No thanks.

  3. Dalibor Topic
    Posted November 10, 2006 at 04:06 | Permalink | Reply

    As one of the guys who started Harmony, I’ve tried out the Apache Way, and found it useless in practice for the purpose you suggest.

    Harmony is a wonderful example of failure of both the apache license to suit a community of users larger than the collective at apache, and the apache community to find ways to embrace other communities in a way different from imperatively demand that they do things the apache way, or get lost.

    Java is bigger than that, and deserves better.

  4. drag
    Posted November 10, 2006 at 04:19 | Permalink | Reply

    Wow that was informative looking up stuff on you there, Dalibor.

    (I wasn’t trying to snoop, I was just curious if I could find what your referencing!)

    The way it looks it makes it seem that apparently RMS isn’t the only one that is all religious on licensing. Also how the ordeal affected the GPLv3 was interesting also.

    Is this something that is normally happenning at Apache? Or is this just kinda of a bad set of events and misunderstandings?

  5. Dalibor Topic
    Posted November 10, 2006 at 11:21 | Permalink | Reply

    drag: It ended up being really frustrating for everyone involved both inside Apache, since no matter how hard we tried, very little moved forward.

    Every now and then, we’d make a bit of progress, and then something new would pop up to derail it completely. It was a hoot. You can read all the frustration that went into that on both sides in the Harmony mailing list archives.

    And that’s the thing that irks me the most about it: we knew what we wanted to do, and had a good idea how to get there. We are a bunch of friends trying to make the right thing happen.

    And then we got stuck in the morass of inflexible politics. Since the FSF gets copyright assignments, they can be rather flexible in their downstream licensing, if the necessity arises. Unfortunately, the way the ASF works, there is no flexibility at all in that point, it’s Apache license, or bust. The Apache way, or the highway.

    We tried a bunch of things to rescue the project as a collaboration effort, even suggesting to move away from Apache to a place that would be more flexible on issues of policy, but that would not have looked good, so … yay.

    I don’t blame anyone at Apache for that failure, or at the FSF. The project came into being in a rather bad time, while the push for GPLv3 had not started yet, and the ASF didn’t know they had a need to a third party library policy yet.

    But ultimately, we couldn’t find any possible compromise, due to Apache having that requirement that everything must be Apache licensed, or else, and not being able to compromise on that.

    With hindisght, it should have been clear from the start that we had tried to chew off atoo big a bite. Apache was the wrong place for the project.

    We should have gone to a third place, without policies set in stone, and made things work there, without being forced to go through irrational BSD-vs-GPL debates every couple of weeks.

    So when people give me kumbaya speeches how super-awesome the Apache license is for community building, and how totally cuddly working at the ASF is, I get to wonder if they actually know about the things that didn’t work out according to the marketing brochure. In particular if they are proposing to go with ASF again in this particular field. 🙂

  6. Posted November 17, 2006 at 07:44 | Permalink | Reply

    You can keep your ipod and still use free software. Check out the rockbox project which replaces the firmware on the ipod with nice free software that lets you play non-encumbered formats, and work with software other than itunes.

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