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Editor's Note: Shaping the Debate

Feb 25, 2005, 23:30 (20 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

"Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown. He's a clown, he's a clown.
He's gonna get caught just you wait and see.
'Why is everybody always picking on me?'"
- The Coasters, 1959

"And I started jumpin up and down yelling, 'KILL, KILL,' and he started jumpin up and down with me and we was both jumping up and down yelling, 'KILL, KILL.' And the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said, 'You're our boy.'
Didn't feel too good about it."

- Arlo Guthrie, 1966

There is an interesting new trend afoot in the arena of technology media. When I say it's interesting, I mean interesting in the sense that one has when one looks at a funnel cloud on the southwestern horizon and says "that's interesting." It may indeed be just an interesting sight to see--as long as it doesn't drop down and become a F3 tornado and plow right through your house.

I have coined a name for this trend, because it's a direct offshoot of FUD, that acronym for fear, uncertainty, and doubt that gets bandied about so often in the Linux community. This new phenomenon, however, is much more proactive than mere FUD, and certainly less subtle.

Let's see if this label fits: KLOD, which stands for Kill Linux, Or Destroy. It is a descriptive that fits a number of recent articles from the punditry of late: articles that predict, plan, or otherwise endorse the utter destruction of Linux and open source software.

To which my initial response is: what the heck did Linux ever do to you?

While there are several readers who will openly doubt this, most tech writers do not base their opinion pieces on financial renumeration from large software companies. Granted, the jury is still out on a few of them, but the majority will base their opinions on direct personal experience, reactions to current events, or something they learned from someone else.

So, when I see the likes of Rob Enderle, Paul Therott, and John Dvorak all writing tales of doom for my favorite operating system, I have to ask myself, what is it about their personal experiences that drives them to come out with KLOD articles?

Is it a unique perspective on IT and business in general? Possibly, though since none of them are currently CIOs or CTOs of enterprise- or SMB-level businesses, I wonder what it is they know that all the company executives who have decided to migrate to Linux and open source don't.

Is it some personal experience that leads them to the conclusion that Linux is toast? That may be, too. I am sure that they, like many of us, watched the signs of doom for OS/2 and Bob. Perhaps they see the same signs in Linux.

Is it a genuine distrust of open source methodology? That's reasonable--every one has a right to their own opinions. But then, when does it become necessary to move from disagreement to out and out goals of destruction?

See, here's the thing: you don't advocate the destruction of something unless you are strongly threatened by it. We protest the European software patent directive because we know it will ultimately be a bad thing for Europeans and the open source community. We decried SCO's lawsuit against IBM because, had it been remotely truthful, it might have posed a real risk for Linux deployment and migration.

Advocating the destruction of Linux is clearly a threat response, but what is puzzling is why the pundits are getting all up in arms about Linux. Sure, you would expect some, if not quite a few, to raise serious questions about the viability of Linux as a solution for given problems. We, as a community, should welcome serious questions about Linux and use them to self-examine what Linux can and can't do, with the ultimate goal of improving the software.

Granted, many of these questions are well-disguised FUD (or not so well-disguised, as the case may be), and it is hard for many Linux advocates to see the wheat for the chaff. Still, I think we have to keep trying to self-improve, and sometimes a criticism can be constructive, even if the delivery is not.

But what is happening lately is just plain silly. No longer are snide comments like "Linux sucks on the desktop" enough. Now we're getting things like: "here's how to kill Linux," or "so much for Linux." Linux and open source technologies are being dismissed out of hand by pundits who should know better.

I will tell you what is very likely an open secret about journalists: we love good fights, because our readers like to read about them.

When I was a small-town newspaper editor, it wasn't the school board meeting that awarded Mrs. Johnson's third grade class a special award for achievement that got the most interest--(though God help you if you misspelled any of Mrs. Johnson's pupil's names)--it was when the basketball coach was fired for misconduct, or when three board members screamed at each other about next year's budget. Those were the stories that garnered more attention.

That's what a lot of people think is going on now: these pundits are shooting for more hits on their Web sites. Say something crazy, many will come. Sure, they'll berate you, call you names, but at the end of the day, your site will have the hit count (or circulation, if you're one of those tree-killing media outlets). I will not dispute this, because this may very well be the answer.

But at the end of the day, there's a big difference between stirring up a fight and advocating the destruction of one of the combatants. I submit that the latter is great for the short-term notoriety, but bad for long-term stability. Suppose Microsoft could "kill" Linux--would the pundits be content to write nothing but Redmond's press releases at the end of the day?

Here is what I think is a more likely scenario. Journalists, like any other human being, take their response cues from the environment in which they are in. When people are cold, we put on a coat. When we're hot, we head for the beach. So, when the message is put forth from the proprietary companies that allege problems with open source, it is fairly natural for pundits to turn around to the open source community and say "yeah, what about that?"

The Linux community has gotten better about responding in a clear and articulate way this FUD and FUD-by-proxy. I think that is one reason we have seen an escalation to KLOD recently. But, as good as the community has gotten, I think it needs to do better. Responding to attacks means that we have let the proprietary vendors shape the debate on their terms.

Is total cost of ownership really the biggest problem with Linux deployment? Microsoft would sure like you to think so, and many in the community have spent a lot of time and effort disputing that claim, myself included. But is it the real issue, or just the one Microsoft would like us to spin our wheels on while they quietly adjust their pricing strategies to make themselves look more affordable?

What Linux needs now, more than ever, is to be able to start shaping the debate on its terms. We have a number of umbrella organizations: OSDL, OSI, and FSF just to name three, who presume to speak for Linux, open source, and free software.

At least one, if not all, of these organizations need to deliver a clear, concise pro-Linux message to the IT world at large that sets the tone for the endless debates between proprietary vs. free/open source. It is imperative that this happens, so that the debate becomes less one-sided, and more honest. And so advocates of Linux will spend less time on defense and more on offense.

Linux is an excellent operating system, with a lot to offer. Do we really want it constantly defined for the general public by Microsoft and the pundits who listen to them?