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Editor's Note: A League of Our Own

Feb 02, 2007, 23:30 (5 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

In 1994, my eldest was one year old, and my wife and I were in the process of re-locating from New Jersey back to Indiana. So things like watching television got put by the wayside while we uprooted ourselves and got things in order once more.

This is the reason I missed the initial airing of Ken Burns' documentary Baseball on PBS. Nine nights of two-hour episodes was just a bit much, back then, even though I am a baseball fanatic.

This week, I have finally got around to watching it, having checked it out from the local library. This is, as I wrote, a lengthy documentary, full of home-spun tales about the early days of what the movie deems "America's sport." I recommend it for anyone remotely interested in sports, and now that the first few episodes are under my belt, I can pretty much recommend it for anyone remotely interested in free software, too.

Each of the episodes in the series deals with a decade's worth of history (though episode 1 handled the 1840s- 1900). Having just finished episode 3, I am up to 1920, when eight players from the Chicago White Sox were banished from the game forever for having thrown the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds to get some extra money from gamblers who were naturally very interested in knowing how the series would end.

It was the story of this fix (popularized by the movie Eight Men Out and somewhat by Field of Dreams) that jogged my memory when I read the headline from InformationWeek, "Microsoft Exec Wanted To Mask Linux Report Sponsorship, E-Mails Reveal," this morning. The fix, I thought, was still alive and well.

Beyond single incidents of shame that mark the baseball and software industries, there were broader historical themes in the movie that compelled me draw more comparisons with free and open software.

Specifically, during the early years of baseball, there were many leagues established to manage and standardize the rules for groups of teams, until finally it settled into the National League in 1876 and the American League in 1901. There were, of course, other leagues, including--most notably--the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League, and a whole slew of "minor" leagues that included smaller towns and private corporate teams. Though there were many of these leagues, they did not really interfere with each other, because of geographical and, stupidly, racial differences.

Even the two main competitors, the National and American Leagues, ended up being in what we now call "coopetition." When owner Ban Johnson changed the name of his Western League to the American League in 1900 and expanded into NL cities in 1901, the AL became the first major threat to the older NL.

The two leagues initially fought hard over their resources--the players--so they could gain the most revenue from the fans. It was rather ugly, with players defecting from one league to the other based on the best salary offer of the day. The fans were unimpressed, and overall attendance began to drop.

Sensibly, the owners in the two leagues decided to work together and form a single, overarching, three-man commission that would govern disputes between both leagues. (Johnson, conspicuously, was on that three-man commission and was the de facto leader.) Thus, major league baseball was born.

The story is rife with parallels to the software industry, particularly open source. I could not help but be reminded that the many leagues were almost like today's Linux distributions, with good and bad reasons for existing. There were even the big two leagues, just like the big two distros, Red Hat and SUSE. The players could represent the developers in today's scenario (though without the indentured servitude of baseball's early reserve contracts, developers are much more free to move from one project/job to another).

Distros are like leagues. They all play baseball, but they each have their own rules. Fans (the users) can choose between them based on where they are and what kind of baseball they like to watch. I, for instance, like a good minor league or college game. The lack of hype and "polish" tends to feel more authentic. Some leagues are based on others (like many of today's Debian-based distros).

You can take this analogy or leave it, but while I was ruminating it this week, I heard the story of the short-lived Federal League, a group of eight teams bankrolled by some wealthy businessmen eager to make some money from the huge baseball phenomenon in the early 20th Century. The Federal League set up in 1914, lured some players over who were sick and tired of fixed salary scales and reserve contracts, and got running. Immediately, the fan base was divided into three and the other two established leagues saw an attendance decline.

Ban Johnson raised his leagues' salaries from some of the star players and threatened to blacklist any player who went over to the new FL. The FL fired back with an anti-trust lawsuit, but the judge held off of his ruling, expecting the FL's financial troubles to force them to settle out of court. By December 1915, that's exactly what happened. The FL disbanded, and attendance went back up in the other two leagues.

(Baseball-as-monopoly tends to bring up an analogy to another certain software company, In know. That's the trouble with analogies. They aren't perfect, and can be interpreted a bazillion ways. But, for now, I'll stick with the league/distro model.)

The reason why I am going over the history lesson today is because of all of the buzz in punditville lately regarding the sheer number of distributions out there and how Linux needs to unify. The story of the Federal League tends to support that: too many leagues put a strain on the fan base and the resources each league can have. Do we have too many distributions to effectively support Linux as a whole?

If the number of development resources (i.e., players) were more limited, then I would say yes. But the numbers are greater, and I think each project will be able to attract the players it needs to get the job done. The open source nature of the distros also means that what's done in one will usually be available in the others. Leagues (especially in the early days of baseball, tended to be more proprietary in nature).

There is, I think, a slight risk that all these distributions are diluting the user base. Less distros would mean more users per distro and therefore more homegrown marketing and feedback support. I think that dilution is not much of a concern.

Still, with more corporate funding coming into the open source field, I think natural evolution will trim down the number of distributions without any active interference. Simply put, most developers will go where the money is, and if that means delaying work on Brian's Linux Distro 1.2 to work on Red Hat, Ubuntu, or Mandriva for some money, then that may be the way things will go.

So I wouldn't worry about to much diversification. The natural ecosystem of the free and open source software community should settle that issue on its own. Like the slow progress of baseball over the years, open source will ultimately come out the winner. And so will we fans.


Program Note: Due to my inattention to the entire article from SingleHop on RHEL and CentOS posted earlier this morning, I did not see it was an advertisement for services for that company. I regret the error, and I have pulled the story. Sorry for the mistake. -BKP