The high priests of free software congregated at Google headquarters last week to debate the future of the movement and face down recent patent threats by Microsoft. But was there more heat than light shed?

Leading names of Linux, the world's biggest grass-roots software phenomenon, are spending three days this week debating whether an increasingly commercial open-source community should fight or ignore the world's largest software maker.

Dressed in the alternative software movement's casual uniform of T-shirts and jeans, the group is coming to grips with internal divisions that sap at its success -- Linux is now used to power desktop computers, major Web sites and mobile phones -- since rival factions often create very similar products.

But as many of the world's top technology companies and corporate customers demand more from Linux, open-source devotees still fight among themselves with the fervour of a tiny monastic order seeking to root out theological error in their midst.

"Guys: Be seekers of truth, not finders of contradiction," Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, organiser of the event, only half-jokingly told the 150 attendees of what is billed their Collaboration Summit.

Linux is the best-known variant of open-source software, meaning software that is freely available to the public to be used, revised and shared. Linux suppliers earn money selling improvements and technical services. By contrast, Microsoft charges for software and opposes freely sharing its code.

Recently, Microsoft has sown dissension by claiming open-source programs such as Linux violate 235 of its patents while striking deals to insulate the customers of two Linux suppliers, Novell and Xandros, from patent lawsuits.

Yesterday, Linspire, which sells Linux-based personal computers through Wal-Mart and other retailers, became the third company to strike a patent deal with Microsoft.

Microsoft: Enemy or punching bag?

Collectively, the group is militantly opposed to Microsoft, which some attending the summit openly referred to as "the enemy."

But most said they believe that Linux users control their own destinies and that Microsoft's patent threats are just the latest attempts to create fear, uncertainty and doubt among customers. After closed-door sessions yesterday and today, the group aims to issue a consensus statement next week on what it plans to do.

James Bottomley, chief technology officer at SteelEye Technology, is also in charge of maintaining the software code used by Linux to transfer data between computers and peripheral devices like printers. It's a job he does for pleasure.

Bottomley said Microsoft is unlikely to sue Linux customers because most Linux users also buy Microsoft products. "Their customers are our customers," he said. "It's just bloody annoying. It gets everyone riled up."

Zend Technologies Ltd., developers of an open-source programming language called PHP that is used in many Websites, wants to remain neutral. Eighty percent of its customers use open-source software, but it recently struck a deal with Microsoft.

"I think Microsoft is a big company trying to make up its mind," said Zend CEO Harold Goldberg, who is not taking part in the event.

"On the one hand, Microsoft has a big established business it is trying to defend," Goldberg said. "On the other hand, there are those inside the company, though they won't admit it publicly, who see open source as the future."

Working to work together

This is the first conference of the Linux Foundation, an umbrella advocacy group formed early in 2007 to unite two predecessors, Open Source Development Labs and the Free Standards Group.

There are as many as 360 rival flavours of Linux, known as distributions, according to This factionalism fuels rapid innovation but splits the energies of developers.

"There really is a sense in many projects that there is an 'us' and a 'them'," said Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu, a free desktop version of Linux that competes with Windows. "There are the folks who are inside a project and those who are outside a project."

The Linux Foundation boasts 70 corporate and non-profit backers, including Intel, Oracle, IBM, Cisco, Motorola, Nokia, NTT, Dell, Red Hat and Sun, along with major customers like ADP, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley.

Linux used to be worked on by professionals doing the work on their own time, said Jason Wacha, an expert on licensing Linux and an attorney for MontaVista Software, a maker of Linux software for mobile and consumer electronics devices.

"Ultimately, I think [Linux] is being pushed by commercial forces.... Now a lot of people are being paid to do Linux as professionals," he said. Many top open-source developers now work for big-name companies like Google, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, he said.