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Extremist Linux Advocates Doing More Harm Than Good

Foul language, abuse, and threats brought by angry Linux advocates could be giving a good operating system technology a bad name.
Industry watcher Rob Enderle no longer responds to angry e-mails from Linux supporters. The principal analyst for the Enderle Group (San Jose, Calif.) says he replied to the first thousand or so. But after that, the anger and profanities that many of the missives contained began to wear on him.

"I've been threatened and other analysts have been threatened, as well," Enderle said. "Some of the e-mail is incredibly vile, and it just doesn't seem worth it to respond anymore. The senders view a response as a license to write again, in even greater detail."

Enderle's experience is part of a new phenomenon that has swept the upstart Linux operating system from feel-good, groundswell enthusiasm to an ugly environment of death threats and electronic terrorism " from Woodstock to Altamont, if you will. The rising tide of emotion is partially rooted in the SCO Group Ltd.'s billion-dollar lawsuit against IBM Corp., but experts say it also reflects the changing ranks of the open-source faithful.

Passionate Disciples

Increasingly, they say, the passion behind the operating system appeals to the disenfranchised, who see Linux in quasi-political " even quasi-religious " terms, but fail to comprehend the business and technical ideals behind it. As a result, they say, good technology is getting a bad rap.

"In many cases, [the responses] have nothing to do with programmers or even with Linux," Enderle said. "I've received e-mail from people in all walks of life. Many of them are about as far removed from technology as a person can get, yet they've picked this up as a cause."

The emotion peaked over the past 10 months, after the SCO Group launched its lawsuit and then sent letters threatening legal action against big corporate users of Linux. Those acts incensed the software developer community and, according to a recent Business Week article, made SCO "the most hated company in tech."

"People in the software community see this as a profound betrayal," said Steven Weber, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of a soon-to-be-published book, The Success of Open Source (Harvard University Press). "SCO has decided to exploit what may be a real vulnerability in the intellectual-property system, and they have done it in a way that is " at least in the eyes of the open-source community " incredibly sleazy."

Many engineers say they are deeply bothered by the SCO Group effort and feel the company is ignoring years of painstaking community development work on Linux in favor of a legal technicality. "It's like saying, 'You spent 10 years working on your house, but since you used our nails, we're not going to let you live there,' " said Scott Bachmann, a system administrator for the Illinois Institute of Technology's network services group. SCO Group is claiming that Linux builds on the company's Unix patent portfolio.

Attacks on the Rise

While Linux began as a technical effort, Weber of UC Berkeley said, the Linux community is similar to that of other political movements. Only about 10 percent are true believers, he said, while 80 percent are pragmatists who simply see Linux as a software tool that fulfills their needs.

The remaining 10 percent, he said, are part of the movement in name only, and feel no connection to it. "The vast majority of folks are extremely pragmatic," Weber said. "They just want to build better software."

One cornerstone of the Linux community's passion, Weber said, is a position piece by Open Source Initiative president Eric S. Raymond. "He created a document that gives them a distinctive identity," Weber said. "It says they are a community of people who are joined together by a common interest and a set of values."

True Linux supporters, Weber said, are devoted to the free sharing of software. "They believe Microsoft's products are technically flawed," he noted. "They are almost religious in the belief that sharing code is a better way to build software. And they won't compromise that belief."

In some cases, however, the sense of sharing and camaraderie that is supposed to characterize Linux has been superceded by an over-the-top zeal, with the SCO Group being the target of the worst of it. In December, SCO experienced a denial-of-service attack, its third major one since the legal battle began last March. The attack began on Dec. 10, with the company's European employees first noting a lack of access to their e-mail. The company's Web site was intermittently shut down for most of the next five days, SCO claimed, as employees worked to bring their systems back up.

When SCO was accused of fabricating the story of its attacks, it hired the University of San Diego's Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis, to verify the event. When the association did so, it too was hit with a denial-of-service attack.

"We were attacked, we were attacked for saying we were attacked and then the agency who said we were attacked got attacked," noted a spokesman for SCO Group.

Members of the open-source community have spoken out against the denial-of-service attacks " mass mailings or other actions to sabotage a network site " but some have also tempered their remarks by adding that denial-of-service is commonplace. "We don't think denial-of-service is good," said Bradley M. Kuhn, executive director of the Free Software Foundation. "But anybody who has been on the Internet knows this is a possibility. It has happened to Yahoo; it has happened to Amazon.com; it's happened to just about everyone with a high-profile Web site."

Still, the attacks on SCO Group have at times gone beyond the bounds of the computer world. The company spokesman said that SCO executives' lives have been threatened. When SCO Group chief executive officer Darl McBride appeared at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas in November to deliver a keynote speech at CD Expo, the company brought a sharpshooter along for protection.

"We were aware of specific threats from someone who had already served time behind bars," the spokesman said. "If they've been there [in prison] before and evidently aren't afraid to go back, we have to take them seriously."

Many in the open-source community have questioned the reports of death threats, but analysts who have covered the SCO-IBM scrap say they have no problem believing they are real. Analyst Enderle said that his family has been threatened, and Laura DiDio, an analyst for The Yankee Group in Boston " who suggested last summer that the SCO Group may have a case " was also threatened.

"I've been covering this area for a long time, but I've never seen anything descend to this level of infantile commentary," DiDio said. "The open-source and Linux community in 2004 is going to have to distance themselves from the questionable tactics of this fringe element of Linux extremists. If they don't, it's going to hurt them more than SCO can."

To be sure, the open-source flap hasn't been limited to outsiders. Jack Ganssle, a programmer, lecturer and columnist on the Embedded.com Web site, said that many true believers are programmers who allow their emotions to overwhelm their logic. He said he has seen developers employ Linux and associated GNU tools in applications that ended up as "spectacular busts" because the software wasn't appropriate for the situation.

'State of Grace'

"Linux is a fabulous operating system, but it's not the solution to every problem," Ganssle said. "Yet, some programmers . . . seem to believe that if they use it, they are in a state of grace."

Ganssle doesn't back the SCO Group effort, but says he is nevertheless appalled by the Web site postings and e-mail barrages that have characterized the SCO-IBM battle. "It's a form of electronic terrorism that is being perpetrated by well-educated people who don't think of themselves as anything but smart programmers," Ganssle said. "People's emotions have really gone way out of proportion on this issue."

In the end, analysts say, those emotions could end up damaging the open-source movement.

"If they really care about Linux, those people are making a mistake," Enderle said. "Anybody who is a professional, and is using Linux as a tool, doesn't want to be associated with this."

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