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Editor's Note: Time to Get Serious

Aug 11, 2006, 22:30 (19 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

It is often touted by many Linux users (including myself) that one of its greatest strengths lies in its diversity. Recently, however, I have seen evidence that points to a new shift in the FUD wind coming from Microsoft--a shift that tries to place that self-same diversity as a Linux fault.

And from all appearances, this tactic is working.

The most recent public evidence of this tactical maneuver from Redmond was an interview with Ryan Gavin, Microsoft's director of platform strategy, published in a ZDNet Asia article earlier this week. In it, Gavin stated: "One of the beauties of the open-source model is that you get a lot of flexibility and componentization. The big downside is complexity."

To sum up Gavin's comments, he implies that due to the complexity of open source code, specifically Linux, independent software vendors (ISVs) are unwilling to spend the time and the money trying to hit a moving target while writing or porting apps to Linux. Right away, Linux developers will cry foul since they (and indeed, the rest of us) know that if you write an application to one version of Linux, then it should work on other Linux distros. Especially if the distro is compliant to the Linux Standard Base (LSB).

But here's the thing: that message is not reaching the ISVs. At all. There are technically knowledgeable people out there that still think that writing to Red Hat is a whole different animal than writing to SUSE, Gentoo, or Mandriva. That's bad enough.

The worse part of the problem is that many of these same people think that once you write a Windows app once, you're done. Never mind the incompatibilities that exist between--for instance--98, XP, and XP SP2. There are two reasons ISVs can say that with a straight face: they know when Microsoft revs to a new version, it gives the ISVs a good reason to re-vamp and re-package their own applications to sell as "Now compatible with Vista" (otherwise known as Windows 07... or 08... 09...). Or, they have been completely bamboozled by Redmond into actually thinking Windows is a grand unified platform. I honestly don't know which is scarier.

Meanwhile, the same folks from Microsoft who have planted these notions in the ISVs' heads have been running around and spreading the FUD about "complexity." And, I kid you not, this strategy is working very well for them.

Take the case of one hardware vendor, related to me by a trusted source who requested anonymity. The source told me of cases where a device maker will code Windows device drivers at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. But they will charge upwards of US$1 million to create a Linux driver for the same device citing, among other things, the variations between the Linux distributions for which they have to account.

Is it any wonder that hardware vendors and their ISV brethren are hesitating to code for Linux? Clearly, the time has long past to deliver the right message to these folk: Linux distributions are not separate moving targets, and coding for one is coding for all.

It'll take more than just education: the behavior of the distributions will need to change as well. Most of the major distros are LSB-compliant, but there are a number of variations that do lend some credibility to the complexity argument. These distros, and they know who they are, need to get right with the LSB. Any other plan of action is simply an attempt to hog all of the Linux business for themselves. Do I need to point out the obvious flaws in that line of reasoning? Linux will never technically fracture, that much is certain. But if the commercial powerhouses try too hard to go their own ways, then we will end up with something almost as bad: a commercially fractured market that Microsoft and Sun will be able to pick apart with relative ease.

This is, of course, the perception that Microsoft wants potential Linux customers to have.

Another thing that needs to change: the amount of negative attacks between distros or individual open source projects has got to decrease. This isn't just the usual KDE vs. GNOME hullabaloo, though thank goodness that's calmed down of late. I'm talking about episodes like last week's missive from Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony, who lambasted Novell for shifting from proprietary to free software in their offerings. Now, I respect what Carmony and his company are trying to do with the inclusion of proprietary, but really, sir, what do you care if Novell goes to free software or not? If you don't like it, fine, but if that's the path Novell has chosen, then let them choose it. That kind of inter-distro sniping is unnecessary at best.

The Free Standards Group, organizers of the LSB, needs to step up as well. The message of a unified Linux application platform needs to be hammered repeatedly into the general IT market. As much as I admire the goals and aspirations of the FSG, I am not sure if they have successfully communicated the benefits of the LSB to enough companies. We, as a community, need to figure out a way to help them do this.

It's going to take a lot, because there's a lot of disinformation out there. The time has come, however, to get the real message out there. We can't just say "Linux is great, Linux rulez" anymore. We have to come up with real-world, concrete explanations as to why Linux is the best choice for IT today, and unify that message across the entire commercial and non-commercial Linux arena.

We have the tools, and we have the talent. Let's get the message out there.