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Editor's Note: Here Comes the Backlash

Apr 15, 2005, 23:30 (31 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I saw something interesting this week; something that made me wonder if there is a counterrevolution starting in the Linux community.

The something I saw (amongst the eight billion news stories I posted this week) was a report about an Evans Data survey that indicated that more developers are gravitating towards non-commercial Linux distributions than commercial. When I saw this, my first thought was a very insightful "huh."

But later, as the concept percolated in my brain, it occured to me that this could be yet another symptom of what appears to be a negative reaction away from that which is commercial in the Linux community.

This is nothing new, of course. There has always been an element of "free" advocacy in the group. There's this one guy, can't quite recall his name... has a beard... wait, it'll come to to me... anyway, he's a big advocate of that whole "free" thingy. And he has a lot of supporters.

In all seriousness, while the concept of free software has Richard Stallman and his compatriots, it also has a lot of detractors--those who disagree with free, either from a business, technical, or political standpoint. Often, the detractors within the community have been advocates of the open source concept, but not always.

Lately, however, "open source" is leaving a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, as commercial interests are using the open source model to figure out a way to share code in the most profitable way possible. Recent statements and actions from Sun Microsystems and Computer Associates have only served to highlight this commercial involvement.

But is this a backlash against open source? Or is it something else?

I think that the recent free/open polarization I highlighted last week is a sign that people in the community are getting tired of commercial interests, however benign, and are expressing a desire to get Linux back to its roots, as it were. The aforementioned survey results may be another marker of this trend.

Here's another example: Sun's development community on OpenSolaris does not seem to be a big hit; and I have already mentioned hearing that OpenOffice.org's community could see some more numbers. Red Hat is still trying to entice people to join the Fedora Project. I do not know how the Novell/SUSE community is doing in terms of growth, but I wonder if they are having similar problems. Mandrake--I mean--Mandriva seems to have a vital developer community, which may be related to their relative small size compared to the other commercial distros.

As you can see in the rundown I just made, licensing is not neccesarily an issue. Other than OpenSolaris, all of the above projects are under the GPL. The thing they all share in common is a high amount of commercial presence. This needs to be emphasized, because I don't think we're seeing a free-as-in-freedom vs. open source argument. I think this is a standoff between free-as-in-beer vs. commerical.

Is commercial involvement in Linux necessarily bad? I do not believe so, though some would argue this point and I would welcome the discussion. I have long maintained that commerce brings funding, but critics against my stance will argue that funding usually has strings attached. And, right now, the development community seems to be reacting with this latter position in their minds, as commercial projects are seeing less involvement, as I mentioned earlier.

This is a running battle in the Linux community, and not something that can be changed overnight. It's just gotten worse because of the new moves in license land by Sun and maybe CA.

At this point, a pundit would make an impassioned plea to the community to try to be open to commercial interest's wants and work with them to give them whatever they need to commercially succeed. You know what? Forget that.

I think it's high time that the commercial entities involved in Linux start paying more attention to the community, particuarly the developers. Maybe they're not happy with your pricing model. Maybe they'd like a different release cycle. Maybe they just want t-shirts. I don't know--but neither, I suspect, do you, commercial distro companies.

This is not asking for the developers to run your company. But you are trying to make a profit based on the communal work of thousands of developers. The least you could do is pay more attention to what they are saying.

A commercial Linux model is possible. Just don't forget who got you where you are now. Then maybe you won't see this migration to non-commercial Linux. And you won't have a counterrevolution on your hands.

[Program Note: Next week, Linux Today will be brought to you from a different nation, as I venture forth to Toronto for LinuxWorld Expo Canada. To those attending, hope to see you there! -BKP]