Socialcalc update

A lot of people have been asking me recently what I’ve been up to for the past few
months, and when they’re going to get to see all the interesting stuff we’ve been up to with SocialCalc. Hopefully I’ll finally have something to point to in the next couple of days, but I’m embarrassed to say that it’s not going to be particularly interesting to many people yet, because the bulk of my time recently hasn’t been spent on making the product better, per se, but fighting over its licensing. In fact there’s been so much internal argument about license issues that there have even been calls from some staff to extend the RSS functionality of the wiki to be able to just block any update that contains the word ‘license’!

Several people have asked me what the big deal is, and whether we’re not just expending a lot of energy arguing over semantics. But yesterday’s post by Michael Tiemann, president of the Open Source Institute (OSI), spells out in more detail what’s at stake as the definition of “Open Source” gets eroded further and further. Although Socialtext aren’t mentioned by name in it, I think they may well be the “vendor [who] has pursued both lines of attack”. The official company position, as spelled out recently by Ross, our CEO, is that “we will refer to our products as open source as the STPL is consistent with OSD“.

This has caused significant problems for me (and indeed the entire SocialCalc team, but I don’t want to speak for them here, and they’ll have to tell their own stories) as I personally think the STPL is a terrible license, and certainly not in keeping with the spirit of Free Software or Open Source. I believe Socialtext does want to do the right thing, and I’m going to help with the process of trying to create a better license, but we couldn’t keep on waiting for that to happen to actually make progress with SocialCalc.

So, after a lot of great work by Dan, Casey, and Liz we finally managed to find a way forward. We’re still going to release SocialCalc 1.1 under the STPL until we have a better license. I don’t know that the official company line will be, but no-one on the team is going to claim that it’s truly Open Source. [Update: Ross isn’t sure either]

However, we’ve also got agreement that the underlying core spreadsheet functionality can be released under the (newly approved) Artistic License 2.0, which is accepted as Free/Open by both the OSI and FSF, and is compatible with pretty much every other FLOSS license around. This includes the entire calculation engine, as well as the parts responsible for displaying and editing sheets. This isn’t quite enough to be a full application in its own right, and doesn’t include any of the publishing functionality, or the site/host/user management, but it is enough for people to embed working spreadsheets into other applications that already take care of all that. The Artistic License allows us to be as wildly promiscuous, integrating not only with GPL applications, but also ones that wouldn’t be compatible if we had gone for GPL (e.g. MPL). And we’re keen to work with people who want to do just that. The initial split between AL and STPL is a little clumsy, and it’ll take us a while to tidy everything up. We don’t even have a separate download yet for the ‘core’ that someone could easily work with. And there’s certainly no documentation of it all. But we can tidy that all up as we move forward, and we’re not going to hold up the release any longer.

We’re just waiting for the final go-ahead and then we’ll flick the switch to release. Ross has been hugely supportive of this approach (and even thanked us for having refused to take “no” for an answer) and many thanks are due to him for that. I’m not sure we can change his entire philosophy just yet, but hopefully we can use this to show that doing proper Open Development of truly Free Software can work in a business setting. And hopefully I can now get on with helping turn SocialCalc into something great.

Feel free to follow our progress on the mailing list or blog if you’re interested in how we get on or (even better) want to play along.

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