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Growing Pains: Jeremy Allison Leaves Novell in Protest

Company continues to struggle with the community reaction to Microsoft alliance.

Jeremy Allison — best known as one-half of Samba’s leadership team with Andrew Tridgell — has resigned from Novell in protest over the company’s patent agreement with Microsoft.

Allison, who left HP to join Novell in April of 2005, will leave the company at the end of the month. He was Novell’s Lead Developer on the company’s Samba team.

The announcement marks a bittersweet end to a year filled with widespread recognition for Linux and Open Source’s role in enterprise computing. Several announcements this year have put the Linux community on edge but Allison’s resignation illustrates one of the biggest challenges facing not just Novell but all companies working in the Open Source space: how does a software company marry the needs of the corporation with the needs of the community?

What’s interesting about Allison’s reason for leaving Novell is that it does not stem from a concrete threat to Open Source in the near term. Rather he’s leaving the company because of a personal conviction that it is wrong for him to support Novell when the patent agreement with Microsoft “violates the intent of the GPL licence [sic].”

It’s not really our place to condemn or applaud Allison’s reasons for leaving Novell. They are his own and such strong feelings concerning a philosophy of software are a rare thing. We wish him the best of luck.

In Allison’s letter to Novell management, however, is this statement:

“Whilst the Microsoft patent agreement is in place there is nothing we can do to fix community relations.”

This pretty much sums up the problems of an Open Source software company: serving two masters is difficult. Work to keep the shareholders happy and the community finds you in the wrong. Focus on the community and bottom line suffers. Esprit de corps is a nice thing for corporations to encourage, but it’s not the basis of many business plans.

Companies like IBM and HP can invest heavily in Open Source projects because “revenue from Linux” for them means “Linux servers.” And those numbers are in the billions annually. Novell can only offset the cost of Open Source software with, well, Open Source software. And in some eyes, any moves to ensure their survival categorizes them as a pariah whether it be an alliance with Microsoft or selling boxed software.

Which begs the question, can the needs of the community and the needs of the corporation coexist for an Open Source software company?

Novell, for their part, has been struggling with this since acquiring Suse. Suse co-founder Hubert Mantel, left the company in 2005 stating, “This is not (any) longer the company I founded 13 years ago.” At the time some attributed his leaving to Novell’s decision to standardize on the GNOME user interface over KDE and culture clashes with the Ximan team (Ximan’s software is based on GNOME).

Following Mantel’s departure, the company went on to release SLED 10 to widespread acclaim. Proving that opinions in the Open Source community can be extremely strong, but don’t necessarily align well with where a company or an industry as a whole is headed.

Interestingly, Mantel made the decision this week to return to Novell indicating he thought the Microsoft alliance was a positive move for the company.

So long 2006. So much success. So many unanswered questions.

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