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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)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

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) Canonical.

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 a cause.

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 on.

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 want.

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 answered.

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.