Torvalds And Linux Heavyweights Sound Off At Open-Source Summit

Patent issues and the lack of integration of desktop software could be stumbling blocks for Linux.
A group of open-source software visionaries Tuesday shared their thoughts at Open Source Development Labs' Enterprise Linux summit about the technology's emergence as a significant and growing presence in corporate IT environments, as well as the challenges that lie ahead.

The typical corporate computing environment demands that IT managers look ahead and see what's coming around the curve. The open-source community is increasingly aware that its corporate customers are demanding a long-term road map, even though open-source leaders are still getting comfortable with the idea of a crystal ball. "I distrust people with visions," Linux creator and OSDL fellow Linus Torvalds said during Tuesday's keynote address. "When you look ahead at the utopia, that's when you stumble."

Despite his disapproval of punditry, Torvalds couldn't help sharing some observations he's made as demand for open-source technology has grown. "If you look at how things have progressed, it's become more of an ecosystem," he said. "In the long run, we won't be seeing any kind of patchwork where you can see the individual patches. There will be one system that will provide everything you need," he said, while acknowledging, "We're not there yet."

Torvalds pointed out that the ability for different, at times competing, software development projects to emerge within an organization is one of open-source technology's greatest strengths. In the open-source development environment, it's possible for some projects to fail while others succeed without bringing down the whole user base. In highly coupled development environments, "you have to have a lot of communication between projects, which takes away energy from individual projects," he said.

The world's largest technology companies have bought into Torvalds' perspective. Rather than co-opting the open-source development process to boost their bottom line, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, and others have learned to make money around Linux by packaging services and other software. Companies can further their agendas not through politics but rather through their motivation to solve particular technology challenges, Torvalds said, adding, "That is how all development gets done."

But the open-source community faces a number of serious challenges to its continued growth. "The patent issue could be a big stumbling block," said Mitch Kapor, founder and chair of the Open Source Applications Foundation. Kapor, also well known for founding Lotus Development Corp. in 1982, shared the keynote panel with Torvalds, lead Linux kernel maintainer Andrew Morton, OSDL CEO Stuart Cohen, and Brian Behlendorf, chief technology officer of CollabNet Inc. and a founder of the Apache open-source project.

Other challenges include the lack of integration of desktop-Linux-related projects, disproportionate resources committed to different projects and the documentation of those projects, and the language barriers that programmers must overcome to operate in a truly global environment.

A desktop version of Linux hasn't advanced as rapidly as the server version for a number of reasons. Although one is Microsoft's dominance in the desktop operating system market, Kapor suggested another reason is the nature of desktop Linux development. Each different component that comprises a desktop operating environment--whether the graphical interface, productivity applications, or browser--is being developed by different groups with little collaboration.

"It's not principally a technical issue," Kapor said. Rather, it's been a lack of motivation for these groups of developers to come together and create a unified interface for the user.

The observation that the Linux developer community is a group of groups is accurate, Morton said. "What we should concentrate on is well-defined interfaces and standards so that the projects can work together," he said. That's where operating-system distributors including Red Hat and Novell play a key role as the integration point for end users, he added.

Although IT managers don't like surprises, the open-source approach requires risk-taking, from developers and users, Behlendorf said. "One thing that would help is being less afraid to be wrong," he said. This could come by focusing more on the strategic value of programming in a more flexible environment, which lets companies treat their programmers more as individuals and less as cogs in a greater system. Said Behlendorf, "This is hard to represent on a balance sheet."

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