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Editor's Note: The So-Called Mystery of Open Source

Aug 20, 2004, 23:30 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I was Googled this week.

That's one of those 21st-Century conversation starters that I like to throw out amongst my friends. My non-geek friends, of whom there are few, just stare at me. My geek friends also stare at me, then blink and accuse me of ego surfing.

In this instance, a college classmate had seen my picture in a magazine article and then Googled to find out what I'd been doing since graduation 15 years ago. I guess he did good: he tracked down the whole Linux thing and got my e-mail address without much of a problem. Of course, once the enthusiasm of a planned reunion wore off, I realized that hey, there's a lot of information out there about me.

It does not help that I lay out all these anecdotes half the time. Little pieces of history and life that reveal a bigger picture of a slightly neurotic, balding, tech journalist living in the middle of Indiana. Still, the power of a good search engine is a bit daunting sometimes.

I will not complain too much, since I used Google for my own purposes this week to track down some people that I, and perhaps you, can send some help to. While I am a Hoosier born and bred, I spent my summers in South Florida at my grandparents' home.

So, when I watched the destruction and chaos caused by Hurricane Charley last week, it was emotionally distressing. Charlotte County, the area hardest hit, was essentially a second home to me while growing up. A little bit of Googling got me some contact information for the county administrators in Punta Gorda, to see if they could use some volunteer help from myself or any, I hoped, LUG members in that part of the world to get things set up.

Fortunately, the Charlotte County government's systems seem to be up and running, though I have not heard from the County school system yet, which isn't unusual, since the schools there are closed until Aug. 30. The library, where I once volunteered, was already closed for remodeling this summer when the storm hit.

Still, if you are so inclined, there may be volunteers needed as the private sector gets back on their feet. According to Scott Graham, Dir. of Information Services for the Charlotte County Property Appraiser's office, "If you are interested in helping businesses recover, your best contact may be the volunteer connection at (941) 496-8466."

Community is one thing Linux has in spades, and pulling together and lending a hand is one of the best aspects of a community.

***

While putting together some efforts for Florida, I did get some work done this week. I managed to meet with some local businessmen who are in the process of putting together a Linux-based company. They're still in the early stages of formation, so I'll honor their request for anonymity for now.

When I was interviewing them, they in turn were interviewing me, trying to get the lay of the corporate Linux land. Of particular interest was a question brought up by one of the managers of this company, who was an old UNIX hand (he even once was a reseller for SCO(!), which made me guard my food carefully). While he was sold on the message of his current employer, he was worried about someone else would look at the products and services they will be providing in the near future and saying "well, I could do that better"--and then promptly go off and do just that.

I felt compelled to give an answer to that, which I'll share with you.

This gentleman's concern was not without merit. People who use Linux, at least in my experience, tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Since we know the systems we use fairly well, we're more than willing to try to accomplish tasks on them solo before calling in for more help. So, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that someone would look at a new Linux product and say "hey, I could do that myself." The very nature of open source and free software allows for that.

But does it encourage it? Does having access to the source code make it more likely that someone will come along and try to build a better mousetrap?

My answer yesterday was "no." I don't believe that having the code is automatically going to attract software "claim jumpers." It could, make no mistake, but the very nature of the GPL makes it really difficult for someone to outright steal a piece of code. If it ever gets tested in court, then it will probably become impossible.

As for stealing an idea, something which is not necessarily licensed, then that is a risk that any business is going to have to run. Any marketplace is full of knockoffs of products all the time. What matters is that a product is the best, not if it was first (though that helps).

I do not believe in the open source business model as an independent thing separate from the rest of the economy. There are some small differences when a company is devoted to open source technology--adjustments that they have to make. But vastly different? No.

These adjustments include paying attention to things like quality, customer support, responsiveness to change, and relationships to customers. Boy, those are radical concepts, aren't they?