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2/21/2004
04:14 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Linux's Biggest Problem? Neither Microsoft nor SCO

Microsoft isn't Linux's biggest problem, and neither is SCO. Linux's biggest problem is the perception that the Linux community is a bunch of dreamers. A whole package of other assumptions goes along with that perception: that Linux is anti-business, that the Linux community doesn't care about profit and private property and that members of the community don't have what it takes to succeed in the real world.

Microsoft isn't Linux's biggest problem, and neither is SCO. Linux's biggest problem is the perception that the Linux community is a bunch of dreamers. A whole package of other assumptions goes along with that perception: that Linux is anti-business, that the Linux community doesn't care about profit and private property and that members of the community don't have what it takes to succeed in the real world.

In fact, the reasons to use Linux and open source are practical. You can start off by doing head-to-head comparisons of software quality. Linux and open source software are just as good as proprietary alternatives. Linux and other open source software is cheaper. Of course, licensing costs are free, and total cost of ownership is often less expensive than proprietary alternatives.

But the best reason to use Linux and open source is the availability of support. This is also the most difficult thing to understand for IT managers accustomed to using proprietary software.

The IT manager accustomed to using proprietary software looks at the business model for open source, and he recoils in horror. "What the heck is this? What company do I go to for support for this monstrosity? What happens if I have a problem? I want a single company responsible for maintaining this software!"

Those concerns are rational, and not to be belittled. (Another major problem for the open source community: they often belittle people who prefer proprietary platforms. Here's a note to any reader thinking of sending me an e-mail: if your e-mail contains the word "Windoze," or "luser," I don't want to see it.)

These concerns can be answered pretty quickly: you want one company to be responsible for maintaining your software? You can have it! Pick a company and hire them to do support.

The business model for supporting open source software is, in broadest terms, exactly the same as the model for proprietary software: you give a guy some money, and he maintains it for you.

However, Linux and open source give you more options where you go for support than are available in the proprietary world. If you use Microsoft Windows, you have to go to Microsoft for support, or to someone that Microsoft has blessed. With open source, however, anyone can grab a copy of the source code and support it. You can go for support to any of a large number of companies, ranging in size and respectability from IBM to A Couple Of Hungry Kids Straight Out Of College, Inc. You can hire an open source expert on your own staff, or a team of experts. And for many questions, you can simply post to a newsgroup or mailing list and get your answer from an open source advocate, absolutely free.

Our friend the proprietary software user is still not satisfied, is he? He wants to know: "But who owns the software? I want a single point of support! I want one throat to choke!" He's concerned that if there isn't one company owning the software, then nobody owns it, and nobody takes responsibility, and eventually the software might get orphaned.

This supposed safety for proprietary software is simply an illusion. As a technology journalist, one story I've written about a million times is this one: Merely Big Software Company is being purchased by Even Bigger Software Company. Even Bigger Software Company makes software that competes with Merely Big's products, and Even Bigger Software is pleased to announce that Merely Big users will have the opportunity to migrate to Even Bigger's products. Even Bigger's executives will be in touch any day now to let Merely Big's users know exactly how much they're going to be forced to pay for this privilege, and when.

I love those stories, because I can always get plenty of good quotes from angry and frustrated users who are, in the words of Marshall, the stammering nerd from TV's Alias, "fuh-fuh-fuh, um, screwed."

Compare that to the world of open source. An open source project might get orphaned -- but if it does, you have access to the source code, the right to modify it, and you can hire people to keep it running and update it.

So don't let me hear anything else about open source and Linux being impractical.

What's more practical than finding a job? Today on Linux Pipeline, we offer some tips for Linux job-seekers on how they can go from resume to interview to employment. In upcoming days and weeks, we'll be bringing you practical tips on how the open source development process is different from proprietary projects, and installing and configuring Samba and Jabber.

We also have an editorial by Network Computing editor-in-chief Robert Preston, debunking SCO's claims that open source "hurts the U.S. economy, makes it difficult for U.S. software makers to compete abroad, discourages technological innovation and threatens national security."

I'm re-reading most of the novels and stories of Robert A. Heinlein, and I'm reminded here of a bit in Heinlein's very first published story, "Life-Line," published in the August, 1939 edition of "Astounding Science Fiction." The gimmick: a mad scientists has invented a machine that will foretell the precise date and time of a subject's death. Life insurance companies are being put out of business, and they go to court to seek relief. The judge finds:

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or a corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back, for their private benefit.

Rob bolsters his arguments with mentions of jumping the shark and Ted McGinley. Go Google those phrases if you can't figure them out; I'm not giving away the punch line.

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