Just back from LinuxWorld Canada in Toronto this week, and I
pretty much enjoyed the show. Great city, very nice attendees, and
the show organizers were really on top of things.
The vendors were the usual crew: Novell, IBM, and Red Hat; with
a notable lack of Sun (go figure). There smaller vendors were all
less familiar to me. Part of this was because of the location, and
part because LinuxWorld was co-located with NetworkWorld this year
(Though it was hard to tell. I mentioned to Jeremy Garcia of
LinuxQuestions.org that I din't know why Canon was there, except
for NetworkWorld, and he reminded me that Canon was at LW in Boston
earlier this year, too.)
All of the commercial players are really making an effort to
define their role in the Linux community, and I received a good
lesson in why it's not good to paint all vendors with the same
Over the past few weeks, I have been examining the relationship
between software that is free and software that is open source.
This has not been done with any particular end goal in mind; I have
no holy crusade to make, and no axe to grind.
What prompted this examination was the recent activities of
several entities, both commercial and not, which seemed to signal a
new movement within the open source community away from Linux.
Some have criticsized this observation, citing that Linux is
open source, and I must be spreading FUD for detracting open
source. Let me be clear: Linux is a part of open source, and open
source is more than just Linux. It is possible to separate elements
within the open source community away from Linux, made easier by
the fact that some elements, such as Sun or perhaps Computer
Associates, are doing a darn good job of separating themselves.
My position on this is straightforward: I want Linux the
operating system to succeed. Up until very recently, I wanted open
source as a whole to succeed, too. Now, from my perspective, it
seems this may be a conflicting set of priorities.
This is a tricky area of discussion, since it is full of
semantic landmines that could easily blow up in my face and make my
point less clear. I will try my best and hope for constructive
suggestions. One more clarification: I am talking about commercial
Linux, not the technical aspects of Linux, or the non-commercial
distros. Those are alive and well, and I have no doubt will
continue to thrive no matter what happens in the commercial
What makes this topic all that more difficult is trying to
figure out the motivations of all the players involved. Sun...
they're pretty clear. Open Source Institute... I think their ducks
are all in a row. But than we get to other big players in the Linux
arena, and it becomes more of a prognosticating effort. To be
honest, with all of the negative aspersions I have been assigning
to the commercial players lately, it was very easy to assign the
same suspicion to companies like Red Hat, IBM, and Novell--even
though they haven't made any moves that signify problems for
I got caught out by this during the Canada show this week, and I
felt pretty embarassed after the fact. Red Hat, whom I have
chastised in the past for their agressive vendor relationships, was
frankly an easy target for commercial == bad for Linux. Now, I
think I need to need to stop overgeneralizing.
What brought me to this realization was a session at the
conference delivered by Red Hat's Michael Tiemann. He and I have
spoken in the past, usually at the LinuxWorld shows, usually for
just a few minutes at a time. I have only heard him speak once
before, and that was before the Fedora Project was launched.
His talk, "Mastering the Open Source Triple Play," was a fairly
non-marketing oriented explanation of why Linux is a good fit for
any given organization. He delivered this message in high-level
business analyst mode, and made a very good case for how Linux
implementation is not only good for total cost of ownership, but it
also can start a chain reaction within an organization--lower TCO
means more money for collaboration efforts, more collaboration
means more money for market expansion and customer relationships.
Much of this is based on user-driven innovation, a concept that's
making the buzzword circuit these days.
User-driven innovation, simply put, means taking the innovative
process away from the business and putting it in the hands of the
customer. One historial example of this cited by Tiemann was James
Watts' steam engine, which, while Watt held the original patent,
only saw an improvement to the 20% efficiency level, based on the
Detroit engine standard. But, after Watt's death and the expiration
of the patent, the user community managed to improve the engine up
to the 60% efficiency level.
This approach is ultimately what drove Red Hat to their
enterprise Linux sales model. By shifting the innovative focus for
RHEL out to the community via Fedora, Red Hat not only saved a lot
of time and money, but they were able to tap into the resources of
the community to get things like SELinux and soon stateless Linux
up and running.
Of course, this move was not without its detractors, myself
included. Many felt that by turning their support away from Joe
User and to James Suit, Red Hat was effectively abandoning the
community. While I cannot change the feelings that people had when
the move to the Fedora/RHEL model was announced, I am beginning to
come to the realization that this may have been one of the best
moves Red Hat could have made to keep themseleves alive.
Certainly Tiemann thinks so, as he cited Geoffrey Moore's
Crossing the Chasm model as being the roadblock to Red
Hat's continued success. By slowing down the RHEL release cycle and
implementing a seven-year support model on the enterprise product
line, Red Hat effectively jumped the chasm from the early adopters
to the much more numerous and much more wealthy mainstream
Others may be following suit. While they have not separated into
separate community/enterprise product lines, Mandriva did announce
a slow down in their release cycle--something that will save them a
lot of resources and ideally improve their bottom line that much
Red Hat's is not the only commercial model a Linux distribution
can take, but right now it seems to be working well for them. And,
given Tiemann's staunch advocacy of the free and open aspects of
Linux, I do not think that this commercial involvement is going to
detract from the community aspects of Linux.
Like any sweeping judgement, saying that commercial is bad for
Linux is just not going to work. When handled properly, it seems,
commercial interaction can be a positive thing for Linux, and can
offer proof against the notion that free software is
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