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Community: If I Had a Wiki

Jul 07, 2005, 23:30 (11 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Jim Sansing)


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

By Jim Sansing

About eight months ago, Linux Today published an article I wrote called "Where Have All the HOWTOs Gone?" I proposed that there should be a Linux wiki site and thought that if enough LUGs would help maintain it, an existing site might be willing to sponsor it. I planned to contact LUGs worldwide and report back within a couple of months on the results. Well, the best laid plans...

Before I describe what I have discovered over the past several months, let me first acknowledge the responses to the original article. As expected, there were a few naysayers, but thankfully no flamers. There were even more well-wishers who agreed that a single source for Linux documentation would be very useful to the community. One poster suggested redefining the issue: a Linux wiki should be a manual, not a troubleshooting guide. Of course, that was the point. A wiki is what the community makes it. I can suggest what I think it should be, but those who contribute can take it in any direction they want.

Another noteworthy fact is, although I listed several existing Linux wiki sites, I missed one. Linuxwiki.org already exists. However, if you follow the link, you might forgive me for thinking that it was not being maintained. But this was only the first of many assumptions of which I had to relieve myself.

I did attempt to contact LUGs to find out how much interest there would be in supporting a Linux wiki. I found several sites that cross reference LUG websites:

However, there is no mailing list for contacting LUGs. So I visited over 800 sites and collected the mailing lists manually. Then I started sending a brief letter explaining what I was attempting. I sent less than 100 copies of the letter before Yahoo's spam filter automatically killed my ID for spamming. A couple of days later, my ISP email account was cancelled and I had to explain that I was trying to send non-spam bulk email to get it reinstated. But at least I had sent enough to get some idea of the interest level.

That turned out to be zero, because apparently all of the LUG mailing lists considered it to be spam as well, and trashed it (I checked with the email administrator of my local LUG and he vaguely remembered seeing my letter, which he discarded with the rest of the spam). I tried for another 2 weeks, but could not find a way to contact LUGs without signing up to all 800+ mailing lists individually, which I admit I am too lazy to do.

Near the end of the article, I listed a few sites that I hoped would sponsor the Linux wiki site, one of them being Google. So, I sent an email to Google's business development address which included the following:

I believe that there is a potential business opportunity to be taken advantage of here:

Setting up a wiki site is a non-trivial effort. But once the initial work is complete, contributions are extremely simple. From my own experience I can think of several instances where the availability of a simple collaboration site would be useful:

  1. When a company undertakes even a moderately complex IT project, if multiple vendors are involved, communication can be difficult. The problems to be solved include:
    • Getting email addresses of 'everyone' who needs status updates, even for minor contributions
    • Maintaining historical status information for those who are brought into the project later on
    • Reliance on one person to distribute information, which can become a bottleneck
  2. Small projects started as a bottom up effort to improve business practices often flounder because the effort to maintain information falls on one individual.
  3. Community groups, such as PTAs, often start projects to improve their schools and neighborhoods. Because these groups rely on volunteers, their turnover rate is high, and the knowledge that the founders had is lost.

This could work like a business that provides conference calling services. To be successful, it should focus on the following:

  1. A low entry pricing structure with optional add-ons
  2. Ease of use: any improvement in the ability to edit pages would be useful
  3. Templates: Templates for the projects listed above are easy to imagine, and more could be developed as interest increased.

Not surprisingly, I did not receive a response. I offer my thoughts here so that Linux wiki sites might be able to take advantage of them.

Finally, I could not in good conscience write this follow-up until I had contributed something to the existing Linux wiki sites. Having spent most of my career working in networking, I created Networking Troubleshooting Documentation and contributed it to the English language sites. The German site, LinuxWiki.org, has asked that English pages not be created, so I sent it in an email. I could not find any information about Linux in the Argentinan site wiki, and it seems to be more of a wiki training site.

Now that I have had time to reflect on this experience, I realize it was unrealistic to expect LUGs to jump at the chance to sign up for the duty of maintaining an international wiki site. They certainly have a respectable list of accomplishments, foremost among them being installfests and very helpful mailing lists. Many have web sites with explanations of Linux, FOSS applications, the GPL and other Open Source licenses, and where to find more information. And they all offer Linux help, online and/or in person (if you bring your computer with you).

However, they also have their limitations. My personal experience has been that there are one to five leaders who make things happen. Then there are the regulars who show up for most meetings and will help with one or two tasks a year. There are several other members who occasionally attend meetings, and finally, the mailing list lurkers who make use of the help.

This structure is not likely to grow into a national, much less international organization. There are good reasons for this. The core members have worked hard to build a functioning LUG and are satisfied with it as is. Other members see it as an opportunity to relate to people who speak Geek with a Linux dialect, not a second job.

But another important reason is that there is no easy way for LUGs to work together. There are several LUG portals, but they have minimal information, such as partial lists of web sites which have to be visited individually. There is no mailing list for LUGs to subscribe to: I subscribed to 4 lists that claimed to be at least regional in scope, and have not received a single email from any of them.

This experience has led me to view the Linux and FOSS community as split between several groups. Obviously, there are the developers. Some have full time jobs working on FOSS applications, while others divide their time between their day job, families or other personal commitments, and their project.

Then there are the users. This includes a) LUG members, b) network and system administrators, c) developers who are not working on FOSS projects but target Linux or other FOSS platforms such as Apache, MySQL, etc., and d) home users. Obviously, some people fit in more than one user category.

A third group is the people who maintain Linux and FOSS services such as the Linux Documentation Project or LinuxToday. This is the closest thing we have to an international organization. But due to limited funding, parent organizations that see no practical reason to perform advocacy, or simply the purpose of the site, this group is not in a position to provide the resources for a major organization.

I expect it is obvious where I am going by now, and there are probably many readers who are booing and hissing at the thought of an international organization. This brings up visions of the BSA, RIAA, and proprietary, monopolistic, international, megolomaniac corporations that have ruined what should be a really great career. We don't need no stinkin' organization, right? Wrong.

Anyone who believes that the continued success of Linux and FOSS is inevitable is as loco as Darl McBride was when he took on IBM. It has only been in the past two or three years that FOSS has been seen as a remotely serious threat to the status quo. Now that the dot com bubble has burst and I don't have to pretend there is such a thing as internet time, I can say the status quo is just now standing up and dusting itself off after the first blow took it by surprise. It is looking us over to find our weakest point and is going to try and throw a knockout punch.

If you are about to spout the community line about Microsoft going into a tailspin, don't waste your breathe. Microsoft is the least of our worries. I believe Microsoft is a one hit wonder, and its days are numbered. However, there are thousands of companies riding Microsoft's coattails that are as mad at the FOSS community as it has been at Microsoft. And then there are Sun, SAP, CA, Apple, and numerous other proprietary software vendors with their coattail riders. Even IBM and Novell partners and resellers have to be wondering just what FOSS is going to do to their bottom line. The status quo is not a handful of companies. It is a whole industry. People who have built businesses around proprietary software and are within a few years of retirement are not interested in how sharing source code makes it better. They want to know that their retirement fund will be as good or better than they have been planning for the past 25 years.

Less than 100 years ago, people were killed in the name of law and order, at the unspoken command of monopoly bosses. This is a different time than the dawn of labor unions. Those workers were in the streets and it was easy to label them as dangerous. Today, it is more a war of talkbacks and blogs, and the workers are "anything-but-threatening" geeks. Plus, large companies are on both sides of the issue. But the monied interests will always try to use the government to protect their loot. When people were being shot, the government had to step in and force a solution. This battle could drag on for years, with a few projects at a time being targetted.

I have spent a lot of the past year working with some friends on own FOSS project. To see what we are up against, I have started searching for patents that might be used against us. It is scary. Not because we might be infringing on anyone's intellectual property, but because what passes as patentable is so broad and vague, it can be used against just about any competitor. And patents are owned across the spectrum, in every size business and even universities, which means attacks can come from many directions simultaneously.

This is just one of the weapons the status quo is going to use against FOSS projects with growing frequency. There are many other dirty tricks that can be used, such as bogus legal attacks, or generating a boycott of an employer that supports FOSS. And as several others have noticed, there seem to be more and more trolls these days. Microsoft doesn't have to hire them, the status quo has plenty of its own zealots. How far will they go, considering the money involved?

Before accusing me of Chicken Littlish behavior, consider Jon Johansen, one of the authors of DeCSS who was hauled into court not for piracy, but for writing code, Dmitry Sklyarov, who was arrested under the DMCA, again for writing code, and Pamela Jones of Groklaw, who had her personal information released in retaliation for documenting publicly available court records.

So there you have a big, fat reason for an international FOSS organization, sort of like an Open Source version of the ACM, IEEE, or Chamber of Commerce. It would provide a counterweight to status quo organizations, and help protect FOSS projects from biased legislation and frivolous lawsuits. It could also raise money for special projects, causes, scholarships, etc. Of course the FSF, the OSI, and others are sort of doing this now. But they each have a relatively narrow focus, and often don't seem to understand they are on the same side.

There are also the major corporations that support Linux and FOSS, such as IBM and Novell. However, their support is tied to their business interests, and there are even pockets of resistance within those companies. And there is the Linux Professional Institute. However, it is mostly aimed at promoting the business possiblities of Linux, and its site lists Caldera as a sponsor and member, and sure enough, the link goes to SCO. Other professional organizations can be found at this site.

But there are many other reasons for an international FOSS organization, exclusively promoting FOSS issues. For instance, do you realize that Rob Enderle and Laura Didio represent you? At least, to CNN, FOX, and other mainstream news outlets they do. Why? Because you have no voice. Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond are not shy about speaking up, but they are not media hounds. So, if an "expert" source is needed for a story, tech pundits are prime choices, and preferably ones who give good sound bites. How else do you think that the media has bought into the idea of computer geeks as fanatical communists? (This is a whole other article, but the truth is the complete opposite and has nothing to do with politics. Our beef is that proprietary companies are making cowpie software and patenting ideas as simplistic as one click shopping, or using XML to define documents.)

In fact, you only have a very muffled voice in the FOSS community. Don't believe me? What is your opinion of the BitKeeper snafu? Do you think Mozilla should be end-of-lifed? Is using Java in Open Office OK or not? Should the CPPL be given Open Source status? Well it doesn't matter, because no one asked you, did they? The best you can do is to post on LinuxToday or some other site, and you can't possibly believe that project leaders even read, much less care about, those posts. So if drivers are removed from kernel, or applications are discontinued, or hardware/firmware features run FOSS development into a dead end, there is nothing you can do about it except hope for that magical "someone" who is prophesied to pick up the project.

OK, enough doom and gloom. Most of us are can-do, solution-oriented types. So what is the answer? Customers. Without customers, there is no company. Even Microsoft tries to make customers believe that it is bending to their wishes. The primary purpose of an Open Source organization should be to convince customers that FOSS is so important to them they tell the status quo to back off.

An example of this is one of the much touted advantages of proprietary software: integration. Many projects are underfunded, even by large companies, and integration is incomplete. The proprietary sales tactics such as "all or none" and "nickel-and-diming to death" means many applications include too much or too little and never live up to their claimed potential. FOSS applications on the other hand, can be improved over time, because they are generally designed modularly, and frequently have cooperating projects that add functionality. So, administrators can bring up as much of a FOSS system as they can handle, without any pressure to "buy now before the price goes up" or some similar nonsense, and later build on it as needed.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the customers consist of purchasers and those who advise them, such as network and system administrators, developers, and "power users." Oh wait, I recognize those advice people. They are us. Except that a lot of them are MSCEs. But Microsoft has made such a big deal out of the "fact" that administering their software is easy, that MSCEs are being pushed beyond the limits of their abilities. At the same time, they are getting little, if any, support from the software, because critical information is buried in proprietary formats under simplistic GUIs.

As it turns out, managing large scale networks with a diverse set of applications is not easy. So MSCEs, who are facing the same downsizing, outsourcing, and "doing more with less" pressures as everyone else, are finding that the easy jobs are getting farmed out to the lowest bidder, while the hard ones are being taken by people who understand complex systems. This is another potential source of leverage, and a secondary purpose of an international organization should be to convince MSCEs that their longterm job security is enhanced by the knowledge of systems, which is encouraged, if not mandatory, under Linux and FOSS. If a critical mass of them come into the FOSS community, the whole situation will flip like a gyroscope that has been twisted too far.

So again I say, what we should be doing for ourselves is to create the best documentation on the planet in a wiki. But let's get organized. We need an international FOSS organization where membership and leadership is determined by contributions, and whose goals are:

  • Free/Open Source Software advocacy
  • The best documentation on the planet
  • Legal and political support for Free/Open Source Software

I am not in a position right now to start a web site that might grow into such an organization. I can only plant a seed and hope that it grows. If there are some who can and will start a Free and Open organization, I encourage everyone in the community to participate as much as possible. I know I will.

Jim Sansing has been working on a new FOSS project for the past year in his "free" time. He has used Linux as his only personal OS since 1996 and is still looking forward to world domination.

Related Story:
Community: Where Have All the HOWTOs Gone?(Nov 06, 2004)