It was a fun little news item to mull over and chew last week, but what’s the precedent? What’s the big picture when it comes to big name corporate entities snatching up open source projects or their core developers? It’s happened, and will happen again, but is it increasing in frequency? Staying the same? A non-issue?
When Apple bought up CUPS last week, some industry watchers were surprised, but not all. First, Apple’s been using CUPS since 2002. Second, Raven Zachary, senior analyst with The 451 Group, said this kind of acquisition — big name vendor snapping up renown open source project and core developers — is happening more and more. And the trend is set to to continue at an even quicker pace than before.
But before we get into that, a bit of background: CUPS, for those not in the know, is the Common UNIX Printing System. According to the shifting sands of crowd mentality over at Wikipedia.org, CUPS is a modular printing system for Unix-like computer operating systems that allows a computer to act as a powerful print server. A computer running CUPS is a host which can accept print jobs from client computers, process them, and send them to the appropriate printer. Sounds like fun.
Zachary himself has first-hand experience with a corporation snapping up a core developer. In fact, while he was employed at La Quinta, his company and Goldman Sachs almost came to corporate fisticuffs over a lead Apache Tomcat developer. “We ultimately were successful in bringing this developer on-board,” Zachary wrote over at the CAOS Theory blog, “but the reasoning had more to do with locale and the cost of living (Manhattan vs. Dallas) than it did with the salary and deal terms.”
Michael Sweet, the creator of CUPS (Common UNIX Printing System), announced last week that Apple acquired the rights to CUPS in February 2007 and that he is now employed full-time by Apple. He’s the kind of developer that Zachary is talking about. Even though Apple is now the copyright holder, CUPS will continue to be made available under the existing open source licenses (GPLv2 and LGPLv2).
It’s now after the fact however, so what’s going to happen to CUPS? Today CUPS is available under the GPL, but will Apple restrict access to it over time? Zachary doesn’t think so, and lays out a pretty good case for openness.
The strength of CUPS is the large community out there writing CUPS drivers for printers. If I were writing CUPS drivers and Apple starting restricting licensing terms, I would stop writing drivers (or advocate forking the project). Apple wins when there are more CUPS printer drivers out there. That said, Apple’s reputation in the open source community is not spotless. There is some concern out there regarding the future of CUPS, understandably, but Apple is not likely to give much more information out other than it has no plans to make any changes to the CUPS licensing terms.
This process, according to Zachary, is set to reproduce itself time and time again in the near future, and with great frequency too. There’s a little wiggle room in there as to what the buyers are going to do with the code they snatch up, but there’s a pretty good case for openness in there too. What’s next? Why? We’ll know soon enough, right?