Posted by: Michael Bernstein on Wednesday August 16, @08:05PM
The nascent open-source database project that was coalescing around the Inprise/Borland InterBase product has run into some problems.
Back in February, Inprise/Borland (hereafter referred to as Inprise) announced that the InterBase RDBMS was going to be released as open-source, and that its maintenance was going to be spun off into a separate corporation (the Interbase Software Corporation, or ISC). After some delays, Inprise finally released the source on july 25th.
So far, so good.
Three days later, on July 28th, Inprise announced that they were in fact keeping InterBase for themselves, basically hanging the developers working for ISC out to dry.
Specifically, Although Inprise has released the InterBase source code, Inprise is no longer investing in ISC or transfering the underlying copyrights and trademarks to ISC.
The reason given at the time and since has been that the proposed deal with ISC (which included ISC accepting a $6 million debt note, and Inprise buying a 19% stake in ISC for $2 million, as well as a number of other tangible and intangible assets) "when considered in its entirety, was not in the best interests of our shareholders". This in spite of the fact that Inprise's move to 'sunset' InterBase in December was the impetus for the formation of the original IBDI (or InterBase Developer Initiative) that later became the ISC. Most of the current 'value' in this product that Inprise was going to write off, is inherent in the community that has grown around it, especially now that the source has been released.
Inprise declined to elaborate on the details of the negotiations, citing an agreement with Ann Harrison not to do so (Ann Harrison was not available for comment due to currently being on a sailboat off the coast of Maine), but claimed that ISC had created conditions under which Inprise was not able to agree to proceed with the planned investment.
There has been some speculation that the deal fell through due to the downturn in technology stocks in general and Linux and other open source stocks in particular, so the short term prospect of Inprise recouping their investment wasn't too promising, or that the ongoing income from InterBase was too critical to Inprise meeting its quarterly financial statements, but none of these could be confirmed.
Inprise's announcement, made just before a weekend, had sent the InterBase mailing lists into a frenzy of speculation and acrimony aimed at Inprise. Most of this has now died down, as developers have started to redirect their efforts taking Inprise's actions into account.
While there was some concern at the time of the initial release that not all of the source code had been made available, Inprise has since added most, if not all, of the missing code modules. At this time, although the latest source code and CVS tree have been released, some key pieces are still being held by Inprise. These include:
A key issue for the community is the ownership of the documentation. Inprise is the copyright holder to the original documentation, But ISC had commissioned an outside company to update the documentation in anticipation of being transferred the copyright. According to Paul Beach, who was appointed VP of sales and Marketing at ISC, the new documentation is not 'derivative' enough (over 30% different) to allow them to release the new version without violating Inprise's copyright.
- release notes
- build instructions and makefiles
- build documentation including known bugs list.
- the testing suite
- the InterBase name
Another issue is the 'test suite', a set of databases with which to do conformance, performance and stability testing of the database software. Strictly speaking, the test suite contains no source code, so an open content license would probably be most appropriate. ISC had intended to release the suite after they had the opportunity to modularize it and make the files more usable to the individual developer. Ted Shelton, Senior VP of Business Development at Inprise, has said that "The reason we have retained the testing suite is so that we can evaluate putting a licensing program in place so that ISC and other companies that want to build InterBase related businesses will have this revenue stream option. Releasing to open source is a one-way journey. We need to make sure that we aren't destroying a needed revenue source for ISC and other potential InterBase companies before we can make a decision about open sourcing the test suite."
This would probably mean that individual developers would have to either pay a company to QA their code, or else wait for someone else to discover any bugs in their modifications.
This also points out what some have seen as a difference in perspective; while communicating with people involved with the ISC, the sentiments most often expressed are a desire do what is necessary to help developers self organize to improve the code, while when communicating with Inprise, it seems as though anything smaller than another corporation doesn't even register, and developers are expected to help Inprise.
Helen Borrie, moderator for the InterBase mailing lists, said "Ted Shelton has not so far shown any willingness to discuss the coal-face requirements. I still hope that he can be persuaded to discuss it. It is my belief that he doesn't understand how/why individual developers and teams would need to use [the test suites]."
Ted Shelton commented on one of the InterBase mailing lists, "We are not shutting down InterBase. We continue to have a solid group of InterBase employees, we will continue to support our existing customers, and we will continue to participate in the InterBase community. We are working to develop a plan around supporting InterBase as an open source product. We will be inviting the community to make suggestions about how we can best accomplish this goal. While we were not able to come to an investment agreement with Ann Harrison and Paul Beach we appreciate the efforts they have made on behalf of the InterBase community and wish them the best in their endeavors."
This statement, while undoubtedly seen as conciliatory and reassuring by Inprise, provoked a very hostile response in the open-source InterBase community, including accusations
that Inprise had set an unrealistically high price for the hand-over. A figure of $10 million was quoted by several people on the lists but this figure seems to have been an exaggerated mis-extrapolation of the $2 million/19.5% numbers.
Craig Leonardi posted a calmer than average response "Given your company's long tradition of neglecting Interbase, I am amazed at your press release. I can only imagine that all the Sr. VP's drew straws to see who would be the author .... While I do believe that you would welcome new companies to support Interbase, your assertions that Interbase will not be shutting down, that you are working on a plan, and that you appreciate the efforts of Mr. Beach and Ms. Harrison, fly in the face of reason and fact."
The list moderator, Helen Borrie, stated that "The community objected to Ted Shelton's approach - asking the community to help Inprise - when it had already spent six months putting its own infrastructure in place. The sincere Open Source approach should have been 'How can WE help YOU?'"
The 'solid group' that Ted Shelton refers to had 40 developers prior to December, which is when most of them left, leaving less than ten at Inprise. According to Paul Beach, a former General Manager of the InterBase Business Unit at Inprise, those who remained, did so because they thought that the spin-off would happen. Since the failure of the deal, three Inprise InterBase employees have resigned, and it's uncertain how many will remain with the company. Certainly two, since they rely on Inprise for their Green Cards.
As for participating in the community, Inprise is not seen as having any of the structures in place to adequately support the community's efforts, and few, if any, seem to be willing to give their assistance to Inprise. One indication of this are the two projects on SourceForge: The Inprise sponsored project has seven developers and administrators, most of whom seem to be Inprise employees (and one of whom is Mr. Shelton), while the 'Firebird' project, led by Mark O'Donohue, has twenty. Also, other projects are sprouting up around porting and tools efforts for various platforms.
Interestingly, the name change from 'InterBase' to 'Firebird', while suggestive of a fork, is actually due to Inprise's request that the InterBase trademark not be used, since trademarks must be defended or they are considered to be 'abandoned'. This has also prompted those involved in the ISC to start referring to themselves as 'NewCo', in lieu of a new name being selected.
It's interesting to note that while the IPL grants Inprise a privileged position WRT releasing binary-only versions of the database and can include community contributed code in those releases, they are not the copyright holders of any community contributed code. So, while they can keep their version of the software in sync with the community version and reap disproportionate rewards for a while, eventually the entire codebase will have been replaced, and the software could be re-released under a different license such as the GPL, removing their privileged position for any versions produced from that point on, and also removing the possibility that anyone else would be in a privileged position thereafter (including NewCo).
Looked at this way, open source licensing is just a formal way of stating that the only asset that any company or project has is the people involved in it.
While Inprise has certainly not done anything illegal, since they are in fact the copyright holders of the InterBase source code, they seem to be committing what might be called a 'reverse fork' (a term I just coined). They had, for all intents and purposes, already transferred maintainership to the NewCo group in a very public way. According to open source 'community standards', maintainership is a matter of consensus, and the way that consensus was subsequently ignored by Inprise has prompted the community to move forward with their own agenda, and shun Inprise as if they were the interloper. To many observers, it seems as though the only way to avoid a fork now is for Inprise to acknowledge the community as the de-facto maintainer.
The community consensus seems to be that most of the key InterBase developers already do not work for Inprise (at least 5 former Inprise InterBase engineers are active in the community effort), and that a fork, while painful without the pieces that Inprise has not released, is now probable but not yet inevitable.
The NewCo steering committee is currently exploring alternative business models and soliciting companies for indications of interest in support contracts, so that they can move forward with plans that do not depend on any Inprise involvement, and there is every indication that they will succeed, as current InterBase customers, many of whom have been disillusioned by Inprise's failure to allocate marketing and development resources to InterBase, are showing intense interest in a community supported version of the database.
Inprise, for its part, says that it has not yet ruled out other investments in outside InterBase companies.