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Linux Community in Danger

On Mar 28, 2007 OSNews carried a story1 about the linux community and the impact of the formation2 of the Linux Foundation.3 As the article indicates, the Linux Foundation membership is comprised of commercial entities and no leading members of either the Linux community or the Open Source community. Many readers were alarmed (including myself) and this led to a very interesting discussion in the OSNews forum, but failed to come to any solid conclusion why this consortium was dangerous to the Linux community. I have come to a conclusion, and you'll see that while the Linux Foundation in and of itself is not a bad thing, the fact that it does not tangibly include and is controlled by the Linux/Open Source community is.

Right now the open source movement is comprised of two groups. These groups tend to overlap quite heavily, but because they retain different goals they remain distinct. These two groups are the open source community and the commercial enterprise. The first is comprised of developers and others who participate in Linux or open source in one way or another. This ranges anywhere from kernel hackers, project developers, non commercial distro packagers, and end users who participate in meaningful ways like contributing bug reports, providing tech support or whatnot in forums, or advocacy. These people are ideologically motivated, somewhat elitist and have a sense of cohesiveness within the community. This community is largely organic with a sprinkling of organization by users/developers.

Their ideology is complicated and I won't claim I can describe it completely, but I see it partially as a form of democratic transhumanism,4 a grass roots organization of software developers,5 and a social network of people.6 Open source aims to be completely transparent and flat.7 But perhaps most importantly, open source is a part of an even larger trend in society: that of reuse. Reuse of goods into something new is a trend in the thinking of all modern societies. You would know it as collage.8 Open source is an application of this thinking to software coupled with the ideas of liberty and equality.

The subversiveness and impact of this movement cannot be underestimated. It has altered politics,9 the economy,10 changed culture,7 and has taken power (at least in this arena) from the corporations and returned it to the people. It has spurned a distrust of copyrights and laws which protect and prevent the sharing of information. Unfortunately, most people seem to be fixated on "Linux's success", which primarily means increased market share and significant enough adoption on the desktop. The Linux community seems to be lost on this idea and I believe this will become a critical period for the open source community. Take a look at John Mark Walker's article, "There Is No Open Source Community"11 for an example of this sort of confusion. He is hung up on the "success" of open source and even goes so far as to claim there is no ideology. Has he read a forum lately? Try the LKML John. Or the Debian archives. And no, these aren't extreme examples. They are examples of the majority of the open source community.

The other group are the commercial entities whose end goal is to turn a profit. As such, they contribute to the open source community only when it is beneficial to their bottom line. Most of the contributions come in the form of open source code, but not always. Other contributions include advocacy and money and equipment donations.12

This type of back and forth between the open source community and the commercial enterprise has been good for both. The open source community has gained huge advancements in the capability of the software and the commercial enterprise has made a lot of money. But remember, these are two separate groups with two completely different end goals. These end goals are absolutely non-compatible. The open source community is subversive and has an ideological end goal of a code base in a sense nobody owns, while the other desires something they can control and make money from.

This union can't last forever. It is tentative on the benefit to one derived from the other. When this breaks down, things could get ugly. Even now there are shells being lobbed.13 And it won't last if the competition can help it either. The biggest trouble with Linux is that it isn't a thing you can put your hand on. As a result people have trouble competing with it. Old skool executives can't even manage understanding it much less competing, or better yet embracing it as they should.

As Linux adoption continues, it is the commercial distros that will become popular with the general public. The creation of the Linux Foundation only reinforces their desire to assert control over Linux. As a result the open source community will be rendered to obscurity. After the proliferation of the commercial distros the ideology, the movement, everything, will become irrelevant. Once that happens, the power is again taken from the people and put back in the hands of the commercial enterprise. You will lose control, you will loose choice, and the technology will stagnate. The competition will have something traditional they can compete with and the likes of Microsoft will be able to sweep Linux under the rug. As I started writing this article Microsoft has already started making patent deals with Novell.14

So does that mean open source will disappear? No, of course not. Will the "free" distros disappear? I doubt it. Will the open source ideology remain? Yes. But will it matter? With the open source ideology left in the dust the commercial enterprise will be free to pursue its bottom line and their own agenda with no regard to the real reason open source existed. It will be irrelevant that they release the source code. Of course the user base won't care where their software comes from and the commercial enterprise will be free to relicense the code. Without the open source community, its ideology, and the subversivness it creates, we will suffer the oppression of large corporations via patents, unfair usage, and overpriced goods. Much more than that it will suppress an ideology of freedom and an ethical standard of doing the Right Thing.

1http://osnews.com/comment.php?news_id=17577
2http://www.linux-watch.com/news/NS5306151939.html
3http://www.linux-foundation.org/en/Main_Page
4http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_transhumanism
5http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_software_movement
6http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux#Community
7http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source
8http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collage
9http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux_adoption#Government
10http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_05/b3918001_mz001.htm?campaign_id=nws_insdr_jan21&link_position=link1
11http://www.onlamp.com/pub/a/onlamp/2006/01/12/no_oss_community.html
12http://www.kernel.org/
13http://www.computerworld.com/blogs/node/5681
14http://blogs.zdnet.com/Gardner/index.php?p=2369

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