Nothing New Under the Sun. Or Red Hat, or FSF, or OSI, or...
May 16, 2008, 22:30 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
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By Brian Proffitt
Ever since I crashed a 451 Group event at the Open Source
Business Conference last year in their San Francisco offices, I
have kept more than half an eye their 451 CAOS Theory blog. I
figure if someone's provided me with a really good cheese plate at
a meeting I wasn't invited to, the least I could do is read their
stuff. It's just good karma.
Normally I find the missives from the 451 crew pretty
insightful. But in Matthew Aslett's recent post, "Trouble
in Paradise?" I find I have to take some exception. Matt. Dude.
It was never paradise.
Aslett raises the alarm that lately there has been a significant
rise in animosity between the open source community the open source
business vendors. The Sun/MySQL
kerfuffle and Matt Asay's recent misconstrued
"free-riding" remarks were the examples Aslett specifically
pointed to as real problems between the community and the
commercial interests. I can cite other instances that could be lent
to Aslett's thesis: the ongoing vitriol between the community
and... Sun, Novell, and (depending on the day of the week)
In this, I completely agree with Aslett: there's a lot of
friction between the community and the vendors who are working with
Linux and open source software. Where I diverge from his opinion is
that this is anything new.
Ever since I stood in the middle of the 2000 LinuxWorld floor
with LT editor-emeritus Michael Hall and watched the corporate
suits watching the beanbag-lounging sandals playing videogames, we
knew it was going to be nothing but trouble getting these two
groups to get along.
In his post, Aslett wonders if this has something to do with the
growing polarization between the Free Software Foundation and the
Open Source Initiative. Personally, I think this goes much deeper
than that. The divide between the FSF and the OSI is a symptom, not
The battle between these two ends of the spectrum boils down to
just one thing: the need to control. Free software developers (who
predate the open source software folks) have had to watch some of
their ideas and code slip out of their control and into the hands
of the open source developers. In turn, they note with horror, the
open source people seem all to willing to compromise principles to
work with commercial vendors and make a buck.
No matter how much a developer espouses the ideals of free
software, this can be a bitter pill sometimes. It's a natural human
response. As a father, for example, few things push my buttons as
fast as when I make a perfectly reasonable request to one of my
daughters and they reply "no."
"No? No?!? Excuse me? but I'm the dad in this family..." and so
But, if I'm lucky, I can catch myself before one of these
tirades and remember that as they get older, I want these kids to
start making their own choices. It's a good thing they can
think for themselves.
It's a hard balance. You watch them make their own decisions,
even though you know they're about to blow it. You try to let them
make those mistakes, because they will learn more from their own
consequences than a lecture from you. All the while, you stand by,
ready to intervene before they make huge mistakes that could really
put them in danger.
The parenting model for free software is nothing new, but I
think it's one worthing remembering. The conflict between the free,
the open, and the commercial is just a progression of ideas, much
like the progression of infant to child to adolescent to adult.
It's also very easy to use this model and imply that somehow the
predecessor is more mature and better than the descendant. That
would be like saying that parents never make mistakes.
Free software developers have given us a lot to work with, but
they can still make errors, as demonstrated in the OpenSSL security
hole discovered within the Debian Project. Of course, these people
helped create OpenSSL in the first place, so I am not so willing to
give them as hard a time about the error as others seem to
Similarly, the commercial vendors may have something to teach
the free software developers. Canonical, Red Hat, Mandriva, and
Novell are amongst the companies that have managed to effectively
channel free and open development into a well-oiled machine of
regular, stable releases. They (along with many other companies)
have also managed to attract the attention of some major users to
Linux and its component software.
While Aslett is a bit off, I believe, in his assessment that
there is something new under the sun here, he is right in noticing
that the level of friction has risen significantly in recent
months. But it is not a sudden new core cause as he speculates.
It's actually a change in the surrounding environment.
What's different? For the first time, FLOSS finds itself poised
to grow its user base by orders of magnitude. Whether they have
articulated it or not, free, open source, and commercial developers
find themselves at a crossroads in the history of software
development. The decisions and actions made now will affect the
future outcome of the entire Linux ecosystem.
What's changed is that customers are paying attention and are
ready to migrate. Or getting ready. Proprietary vendors are
definitely paying attention, even going as far as forming alliances
with commercial open source companies. Whether they are hedging
their bets against the doom of proprietary software, or seeking to
dismantle FLOSS from within is a question that has yet to be
It is into this changing environment, a world at once ready to
accept or condemn Linux, that Linux (and any other related
software) must enter. Is it any wonder that the tension between
free, open, and commercial entities is growing?
All sides should realize that deep down, they all fear the same
thing: loss of control. They need to remember that being free or
being open isn't about control, it's about creating a great product
and sharing it in some way with others. There are differences in
the way to share, but the end users that work with the applications
are still just looking for the great product.