Looking for Mr. ISV
May 09, 2008, 22:30 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
Re-Imagining Linux Platforms to Meet the Needs of Cloud Service Providers
By Brian Proffitt
One thing's for sure; with all of this talk about "open source
billionaires" out in the ether-web, clearly people have some high
expectations of open source's profitability. Or low, depending on
the point of view. Honestly, unlike every other technology pundit
this week, I'm not looking too hard for the open source
billionaires. If there is indeed a dearth of people making beaucoup
bucks from free and open source software, I think it's only a
symptom of a larger issue.
The issue is a persistent one: the difficulty in attracting
corporate developers to Linux.
Some would argue with me that this, like the billionaire hunt,
is a non-issue; that there are plenty of ISVs interested in Linux
(with more every day) and I am putting too much emphasis on a
problem that's being solved. But here's the thing: in the last two
weeks I have talked to four high-level execs from three different
organizations actively involved in Linux, all mulling over the same
problem: how do they get independent software vendors to their
distros in particular and to Linux in general?
The answer to this question lies in what specifically is holding
these ISVs back? Lack of interest? Trepidation about the whole open
source universe? No money to invest in R&D? Confusion about
licenses? An inability to see a fiscal return? Enslavement to the
evil proprietary companies?
In a word, yes. These are logical (to them) reasons for ISVs to
avoid the Linux platform. But these point to two broader problems
that all Linux-reluctant companies share, no matter their stated
reasons for not developing for Linux at this time.
The first problem is one we already know: a lack of information.
They don't know enough about Linux, and they are basing their
decisions on half-formed bits of data that they gleaned from
various sources. It's been a challenge for Linux (and open source
software) to face from Day 1. But, through various outlets, I
really believe that this challenge is finally being overcome. A lot
of people know what Linux is. And the GPL. And all the other things
that used to look like boogymen in the dark, until the light was
turned on and only a cute penguin is sitting there.
But the other problem is not one that is discussed too often.
But it stuck me when I was watching, of all things, the movie
American Gangster this week.
If you are not familiar with the film, this 2007 biopic follows
the story of Frank Lucas, the drug lord who rose to power in Harlem
in the 1960s and '70s. Lucas did what no other black man had done
before; broke the drug monopoly of the Italian Mafia and corrupt
NYPD to create is own empire that soon eclipsed that of his
The way Lucas did this was staggeringly simple: instead of
trying to carve out a niche in the existing drug production and
supply chain, he traveled to southeastern Asia and made a deal with
a producer of heroin directly. By completely eliminating the middle
man, Lucas was able to transport the pure product to the US (via
military transports coming back from the Vietnam War), prep it for
distribution, and sell a better product for less cost than the
Now, just so we're all clear, this is not a comparison between
software production and the evil, poisonous drug trade. Just say
Luca's solution is instead a very dramatic example of lateral
thinking. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem (the deadly
hold on the practice by the Mafia and their corrupt police
accomplices) Lucas sidestepped the problem entirely and came up
with a brand-new solution.
Granted, "cut out the middleman" is not unique to any business
plan, but Lucas' application of the principle, taking almost
perfect advantage of the political and cultural situation of the
era was certainly pretty smart. So smart that he was able to elude
(honest) police investigation for quite some time because no one in
the 1960s was able to initially believe that a black man would hold
more sway than the Italian organized criminal organizations.
It seems to me that such lateral thinking, applied to the far
more worthy and legal practice of software development for Linux,
is something that is really needed. There is a wall, real or
perceived, between Linux and ISVs. Someone on either side needs to
come up with an idea that sidesteps all of the obstacles that are
currently standing in the way.
One possible direction for a solution is this notion of a
middleman. In the beginning, our bespectacled geek ancestors built
the computers and the code that ran on them at the same time. But
somewhere along the line, there was the bright idea of separating
development between what talked to the computers all the time (the
operating system) and the separate, temporary applications that
In effect, the operating system became the middleman. It was a
good system, since application developers no long had to code to
individual machines. If the app could run on a given OS, then it
didn't matter what the hardware was. But then one operating system
became too powerful, changing its mission from helpful platform to
strict gatekeeper: if you didn't play ball by their rules, you had
to take your ball and go home. (If they let you keep your
Today, it seems, ISVs are still approaching Linux as something
like that bullying middleman. It's not Linux' fault--it's just that
after so many years of doing things one way, the notion that
there's another way to interact with an OS is completely alien.
This, I believe, is where the need for lateral thinking comes
Linux as a community needs to dismantle the notion that ISVs
have to deal with Linux just like Windows, OS X, or Unix. Yes, we
can espouse till we're blue in the face that Linux is free and
open. But what does that mean for ISVs on a fundamental, practical
If we can find that solution, I think the ISVs will come to
Linux so fast, we'll wonder why they ever held back in the first