by Bernard Golden

Open Source Odds and Sods: Sightings from the Ecosystem

Feb 20, 20078 mins

A number of interesting events have happened this week in the heady whirl that is open source that I thought deserved further examination; especially since the conventional wisdom regarding their meaning is, in my view, misplaced. All of them have an entertaining aspect as well, making for an enjoyable tour through the topics.

Open Source Odds and Sods #1: Maybe desktop Linux isn’t moribund, after all. There’s been endless discussion about the potential for Linux on the desktop for years, and it seems to be the “year of the Linux desktop” every year. While Linux has been making progress in being easier to use and install, it’s still not a mainstream item. However, something funny happened this week. Dell, in its attempt to get back to being an innovator in terms of customer service and satisfaction, opened up a request page where people could write up what products they’d lke to see Dell release. Dell went further and allowed people to vote, Digg-style, about which of the requested products they’d most like to see.

The big surprise: the number one most requested and voted item was — pre-loaded Linux on Dell PCs. In fact, of the top six or seven requests, open source figured in three or four of them. While there’s some room for skepticism about the validity of this voting — it may be a biased sample, a la the (in)famous Literary Digest magazine survey that showed Alf Landon defeating FDR for President in 1936 (by phoning the subscribers of its rather-tony magazine, Literary Digest got a sample that was more Republican and also better-off due to their ability to afford telephone service, which led to the erroneous conclusion that Landon would win the election), there are nearly 70,000 votes for the preload as of this morning. Even if this doesn’t represent the overall potential buyer base, 70,000 purchasers of Dell products is a decent-sized market in and of itself.

Perhaps there’s more promise for Linux on the desktop than most people think!

Open Source Odds and Sods #2: Maybe Bill Gates was right when he called open source “communist” (he later took refuge in the classic “I was misquoted” PR-initiated recovery maneuver). Free software advocate Richard Stallman was in Havana last week and spoke at the International Conference on Communications and Technology. Host nation Cuba announced that, along with Venezuela, it would move away from Microsoft Windows and begin using Linux.  Slashdot, naturally enough, covered this story as though it was big news. 

Of course, it didn’t end there. Well-known “analyst”  Rob  Enderle hysterically reacted in this amusing blog posting that Stallman appearing as a fellow traveller in Cuba would  somehow irreparably harm the “brand” of Linux. In Enderle’s febrile vision, the fact that Cuba would use Linux would somehow mean that the NSA would never consider using it and that one political candidate would tar another by pointing out that the opponent had an agency that had used Linux. I mean, really.

First off, Richard Stallman does not own Linux and does not control it (despite his agitated insistence that people use the term GNU/Linux to indicate the FSF preeminence in creating this operating system).

Second, Linux is used all over the world. As Enderle himself notes, there is already a version of Linux used within a communist country: Red Flag Linux, widely used in the People’s Republic of China (although Enderle feels this is not so dangerous, since it has its own “brand”; I confess, I am not deep enough to understand how brand is an armor that shields against espionage concerns).

Third, and perhaps most important, Richard Stallman is well-known as an idealogue on the subject of free software, and most people are able to distinguish his activities from the larger topic of open source. His adherents like to see him as Thomas Jefferson — the creator of a clarion call to liberty who later became an leader of the government spawned by the revolution fomented by his writings. I believe he will ultimately be seen more as Thomas Paine — a brilliant propagandist who helped ignite a movement but, when that movement took power, could not be comfortable in the resulting institutions, and found he needed to go off and fight the next revolution (which, in Stallman’s case, appears to be GPL3; I just hope he has a happier outcome with it than Paine did in revolutionary France!).

Open Source Odds and Sods #3: Linus Torvalds goes off against Gnome — again. About a year ago, Linus Torvalds (the creator and actual trademark holder — that is, the brand — of Linux) had a very public spat about Gnome. If you’re not familiar with Gnome, it’s a graphical interface for Linux. Linus prefers KDE. I have to confess, I’m with Linus on this one, although I don’t get too worked up about it. He got upset about Gnome again this past week and sent off some emails on the subject along with some code patches to fix Gnome to his liking (in an email this morning, he complained about having to edit text files to configure Gnome because he has to re-learn the formats every six months; he called for easy-to-use GUIs to perform open source configurations, to which I can only add my heartfelt agreement — if that aspect of open source was addressed, 90% of the complaints about it would disappear). About the only thing Torvalds feels more strongly about than Gnome is GPL3, which he has very vocally criticized for what he views as its misguided attempts to dictate usage. Torvald’s rant looked a little overblown when a Gnome maintainer wrote back thanking him for the fixes and mildly apologizing for not addressing the problem beforehand due to the press of other work. The most striking thing about this exchange, to me, is the rather quaint vision of Linus submitting patches (that have to be accepted by the Gnome maintainer) for a part of the product for which he holds the trademark! So much for a monolithic movement — he doesn’t even control his own project.

Open Source Odds and Sods #4: In shocking news, open source vendors use open source as a competitive weapon. CIO Magazine’s sister publication Computerworld had an article discussing the fact that a number of vendors have used open source as a competitive weapon against commercial rivals. IBM’s sponsorship of the open source database Derby is cited as being used by the company to harm its competitors like Sybase, though in that particular case one would have thought there were plenty of self-inflicted wounds already present. After a couple of further observations about how it seems like there’s “good” open source-using companies and “bad” other companies (example cited that if Microsoft released Visual Studio for free, it would have been thought a bad company pursuing predatory market practices; see earlier mention of previous presence of self-inflicted wounds negating need for further evidence), the article goes on to quote Dave Rosenberg, well-known in the open source community, as noting that IBM probably didn’t plan to do anything particularly harmful with its open source efforts, and it was pretty much OK. Of course, he was then quoted as disparaging another company’s open source efforts because its products are based on the Microsoft .NET framework.

I don’t get it. This kind of “Is X an OK kind of open source thing” reminds me of the tempest over the past few months about the Novell/Microsoft deal, with many people criticizing it as contrary to the “spirit” of open source. It all sounds too much like little boy’s clubs where most of the energy is spent discussing who doesn’t deserve to be a member, while all the current members congratulate themselves on being super-cool.

Get over it. There is no can’t-we-all-just-get-along “spirit of open source.” It is a movement with many different motives and perspectives, as the examples of Stallman and Torvalds cited above show. There’s no doubt in my mind that companies like IBM calculatedly use open source as a competitive tactic; however, I view their donation of Derby more as a way to dump an unsuccessful product than a way to harm Sybase — more germane is their creation of Eclipse as a direct fusillade against Sun and Borland. Believe me, we’ll see plenty more of this kind of thing in the future as vendors begin to apprehend the power of open source and start to leverage it as a competitive tool. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Microsoft follow its rapprochement with Novell to the logical conclusion of purchasing the company, with the aim of better competing with Red Hat and Oracle.

The difference between open source and proprietary software is key. The company sponsoring an open source product can influence its direction, but has no iron control of it, as it would if the product were proprietary. With open source, users have the ultimate trump card, which is access to the source. There is no final lock-in — I mean, Linus Torvalds doesn’t even control Linux, much less IBM, Red Hat, or Novell. All of these maneuverings mean that the logic of open source — low prices and users holding the upper hand — is permeating through the industry.