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Alan Cox: A Brave New World

Mar 04, 1999, 13:23 (5 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Alan Cox)

By Alan Cox

So the suits have invaded your favourite OS, do you care, should you care ?

The answer is probably yes. A large number of people are about to collide with a community they don't understand which has a long history of its own independence, and its own shared cultural references. Think AOL meets the internet.

The very first line proves this. I can talk about "a suit" and most of the readership know exactly what I mean. The "suit" is a shared stereotype of many of the outsiders of the community. If you are what we class as a suit and are reading this by the way welcome, do come in , you don't need to hang around the door. We don't even have suits in general as the first people against the wall, although we do have places reserved for a couple of them.

Similarly things like "See figure 1"[0] , "What was your user name again ?" and suggestions for using dead chickens are something that has a common meaning. Userfriendly isn't terribly funny to some people because they lack the frame of reference to understand ISP's really really do work like that. I feel sorry for them because now that I've finally discovered it, I've found it is a great cartoon.

It is important that when the suits do things that don't fit the community that people gently remind them. It takes time and it has to be done right but it does work. The average AOL user has become materially more internet-friendly over time. The continual polite chiding for using HTML email on mailing lists has had its desired effect. Also sometimes you need to step back and try and see how they are thinking and why as well as their background. Don't just criticise but try and explain in their terms why things matter. "See figure 1" is not the productive answer especially if they've learned what figure 1 is.

In the Linux frame of reference most suits are going to be coming to Linux partly because everyone else is and partly because of its excellent price/performance, and to give them their own buzzwords back - Total cost of ownership. I imagine most of the people cheering happily at all the proprietary software and value added (or as Richard Stallman likes to term it 'freedom deducted') software are in this category.

If you want to teach them the reasons why Linux is better, faster and more stable do it gently. In time they will come to wonder why they are pricing a commercial email system for Linux when the one on the CD-ROM works perfectly well anyway. They will wonder why they are buying high price network management tools when they seem to get free ones. Eventually they will get the message. The barrier has partly gone, no longer is it "but thats free software", its "thats free software, excellent - will that package work for our needs".

We need to gently teach them that technical shows they should be paying for speakers, they need to show us that for marketing shows the talks are really advertising so they don't expect to pay for them. We need to teach IDG that registering Linuxexpo.com and causing confusing with the real Linux Expo in May is not the way we do things here.

There is going to be real turbulence ahead if history repeats (as always [1]). Certainly my own memories of the UK mainstream arrival of the show sold home computer, and even more the events way prior to that in the USA that Stephen Levy documents in 'Hackers' mirror the current happenings remarkably well.

Some vendors will probably vanish over the next two years while others disappear into big name companies and numerous new vendors spring up to take on new niches and angles of the Linux business. The whole business model is still in flux - do Linux companies sell Linux, do they use Linux as a tool to bundle software to the retail channel, do they sell custom systems built on Linux, do they associate with some vendors or do they stay application vendor neutral and thus avoid competing with application people ? All of these are unknowns.

Money too is beginning to influence Linux kernel development far more than before. Not at the moment in a bad way I'm glad to say. Free software reflects the needs of the userbase and their talents. This has always therefore focused on the hardware people really possess. You'll notice Linux 1.2 for example doesn't reflect 2Gig machines with multiple RAID controllers. The typical home hacker doesn't generally possess these. Instead we have the coffee-machine interfacing mini-HOWTO. The people who need these high end facilities aren't writing them however, they are using their own currency for contributing to the kernel. They are paying people or using their own staff to write the high end support and place it under the GPL.

There is always a risk that money will start to talk too much. "I know this feature is stupid but if we pay you $$$$ will you do it". Thankfully Linus is rather good at saying "no" to anything that isn't a good idea. That is bound to be an area where there is some friction. These people will also bring non Unix ideas with them too. Linux will probably gain from this because Unix doesn't have a monopoly on good ideas, it just owns most of them.

Do look after our visiting suits, they come from a strange land and have strange rituals like "Trade Shows". Be assured they find our rituals of talking about technical material in detail just as strange. They have been living under an oppressive binary-only single OS regime, and as refugees need sympathy and education. It's very hard to teach someone the value of freedom but please do try. And I'm told we do share some common rituals. Our "flame war" is apparently held in person in their land and called "project meeting".

Please be friendly and give useful directions any lost suits.

[0] http://spiffy.cso.uiuc.edu/~kline/Stuff/see-figure-1.html
[1] I am a great fan of the "History repeats itself, it has to nobody ever listens" quote.

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