Linux Community: You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling

Analyst Rob Enderle argues that the Linux community has
What prompted this column was correspondence I received from Europe that was like many I get from the Linux community. It accused me of being a paid shill for Microsoft and SCO, and of not having a single working or honest, brain cell in my head. However, as is often the case, by the end of the correspondence the writer understood my position and why I'd taken it and apologized for his initial reaction. This is not to say he agreed, only that he accepted that my position was honest and regretted his initial heated words. One thing he said in addition that hit a nerve was "how did Linux get this way?"

What he was talking about was the loss of Linux as a warm community of people working together for the common good. In his mind, and I have to admit in mine, Linux kind of started out like a school club where people got together and enjoyed a common bond while focusing on mutual problems. If it was anti-anything it was anti-big company but it really wasn't defined by hate as much it was a place where people, who often didn't get out much, could congregate, mostly virtually, and work together on common problems (and both make and maintain friendships).

Like all groups of this type it wasn't perfect but it seemed much more positive.

Now it has somehow become more like a political party where hate for the "other side," be it Microsoft or SCO, defines the group. Much of the direction seems to be coming from IBM, the very company that, during the early Linux years, was the antithesis of the group.

Unix kind of went the same way. It started out as this largely collaborative effort and then ended up being defined by the large vendors who could only agree on one thing. That one thing was that no vendor could give up a competitive advantage to another. This fragmented Unix and damned it to the fringes. Granted, it made the Unix vendors a great deal of money, but money had not been the primary goal of the original framers of Unix any more than it was the goal of Linus Torvalds and his group. (And I honestly believe this remains true of Linus today.)

Ironically, FreeBSD, which is connected solidly back to Unix, is more like the early Linux community than Linux is today. The people are focused on community, getting work done, and the only major vendor in the mix is Apple. While the BSD folks often complain that Apple doesn't contribute to the effort much, given what has happened to Linux, this may actually be a good thing.

So what happened to Linux? What follows are my observations; they aren't intended to be a slam against the community or any of the players.

Certainly a number of us have argued that the zealots destroyed Linux, much like they crippled OS/2 and nearly killed Apple. But this is too simplistic, and in the case of Linux, while they certainly hurt, in my opinion, they weren't the critical factor.

Some also argue that the problem began when Linus let the suits in. Clearly this is what happened to Unix: once the suits (read IBM/Sun/NCR/Digital/HP etc.) were let into the process, it simply became about them and any chance for a community, outside of education, dried up. But BSD, Unix and Linux did spring up to fill the need for a community and BSD, at least, still seems to be much less commercial. But the suits are only part of the problem.

I think the problem with Linux is that the people who supported it aged, and as we age, we become more conscious of our core needs. In short, the folks that backed Linux needed to earn a living. Now, in any group, there will be folks that are very competitive. While some may measure themselves on the number of lines of code they can produce in a day, or the quality of their work, most measure themselves by how much they make. When you stop being a club, and start to focus on monetary rewards all kinds of things, mostly bad, start to happen.

Now there are two core problems with money as a goal. It focuses people on individual gains, and it forces competition over cooperation. This creates issues with people who feel they are being taken advantage of and generally, over time, destroys the collaborative core that made the organization so valued. Linux was gradually becoming commercial in the late 90s and if the process remained gradual there is at least the chance that the community leadership of the program could have been sustained.

What I think destroyed the heart of Linux was the dotcom era. Suddenly you had people getting rich overnight in what became a massive economy-killing pyramid scheme of people chasing non-existent wealth. Linux got sucked in, chewed up, and spit out as a commercial product of questionable value. I say questionable, because what made Linux valuable was not the money attached to it, it was the community that surrounded it. By increasingly focusing on money, the community aspect was lost.

Much like we watched Frodo, in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, become corrupted by the Ring, Linux became corrupted by the influx of financial drivers which overwhelmed the community that supported it. This made the community vulnerable to takeover and, suddenly, the Linux community is in a war that was actually declared by its largest corporate member, IBM. While this community might have agreed to be part of IBM's preemptive strike against Microsoft and Sun, I doubt they were even asked. Unfortunately SCO, and every Windows user on the planet, got caught in the middle and now we have a huge mess.

Think about this for a moment. Go back to 1989 when IBM was the Establishment. If you were Linus Torvalds would you have believed that Linux would be tied at the hip with IBM and used as a weapon against IBM's competitors, Sun and Microsoft?

I think if I'd predicted in 1989 that Linux would be turned into an IBM weapon, Linus himself would have called me an idiot back then.

Not that he doesn't do that now.

It is shame things have to change, but who says they can't change back? If you are feeling this loss, maybe it would be worth the effort to see if the trend can be reversed.

If you don't feel that effort is worthwhile, try the FreeBSD community, I've found them to be every bit as friendly as the Linux community used to be, and they seem to be focused more on community and less on money.

But zealots or suits need not apply, the BSD folks are protecting their community rabidly against the problems being experienced by Linux, and certainly don't want to go down that path themselves.

Rob Enderle heads the Enderle Group, a company that will formally launch in September of 2003. He has been an external IT analyst since 1993. He is contemplating building an open source-free saferoom in his solar-powered home. He can be reached at [email protected]

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