Musings on Linux Profiteering

Technical editor Jason Kroll shares a few thoughts and shots on Linux versus Linu$.

Dogs are the most reasonable, friendly, affectionate creatures; compassionate, empathic, loyal, and supportive... until food enters the picture. Then they become whimpering idiots, begging, whining, contorting, groveling, prostrating themselves, acting as fools. Food, you see, makes them periodic imbeciles. The problem, of course, is that money has a magnified effect on people. Out go all the morals, all the ethics, every commitment, every belief, the moment the slightest bit of cash enters the picture. How many hackers/crackers/phreakers/warezmeisters fight against the system until they get a high-paying job at Microsoft, only to turn around and declare that all true hackers work at Microsoft and that “piracy” is immoral, and free software is bunk?

As you may have heard, more than a few people have become quite wealthy by selling free Linux software (or more specifically, selling Linux stock), and more than a few people caught on. And money is having its strange effect, hence the recent explosion of Linux distributions. (Although it's questionable what's worse: what money does to people when they have the opportunity to sell out and make a bundle, or what it forces them to do on a daily basis.) Oh, by the way, our recommendation that “everyone should have his or her own version of Linux” was a joke, but if you've gone ahead and done it, maybe you can grab some IPO cash, but don't count on the community to support you.

Of course, there are the Linux firms that have been around forever, firms like Red Hat and VA Linux which have had successful IPOs and were around before Linux became trendier than “e-business” and “dotcom”. These firms have also done a lot for Linux, both the community and the operating system. As jealous as I am of Red Hat, and even considering every irritating thing they do, I have to admit they've supported kernel development and even took a stand against the restrictive licensing of libQt by supporting the Gnome project (and that was back when Gnome/Enlightenment wasn't even stable, like it is today). Higher-quality distributions are out there, but Red Hat isn't exactly a Johnny-come-lately. And besides, look at the infusion of capital Linux received as a result of Red Hat. VA, likewise, employs (supports) many of the top brains in the Linux community, and supports more projects than I can keep track of. Not only that, but VA fills one, if not the most important, niche of commercial Linux, a premier hardware vendor—the hardware icon for Linux. While investors probably expect software firms to make more money than hardware firms, Linux people know the value of VA to the community.

Then of course there are SuSE and Caldera, who have also been in Linux forever and produce what many (myself included) consider the highest-quality commercial Linux packages available in their respective markets. SuSE is so complete and all-encompassing with its 6 CDs of software and easy yet fail-safe installation. SuSE's clever design of incorporating installed software into menuing systems, the YaST program (for installing and removing packages whenever you like), the thorough manuals, and the hardware support, put SuSE over the top. Caldera, in turn, offers what is probably the most cohesive distribution, ideal for VARs who want to install a Linux distribution before shipping. Caldera also took a brave step in introducing the first graphical, auto-probing, easy installation software for Linux. Caldera prompted others to offer similar auto-probing installers, as well as automatic sound-card configuration (a traditional terror in the Linux world). These two have been leading figures in commercial Linux (which makes Linux palatable to the masses) for a long time, and we are waiting for the inevitable IPOs, even though SuSE and Caldera have not rushed in to grab capital but are waiting until the most appropriate time. It is possible that by the time this goes to print, one or both will have IPOd (Caldera has filed already).

Some people who aren't waiting for the most appropriate time are crawling out of the woodwork. I keep receiving distributions I've never heard of, and reading about planned IPOs from the same (e.g., LinuxOne, though I have yet to see a product from this one). These people are rushing in, trying to cash in on the Linux craze before the wells dry up. What are the dangers of this? Suppose that these fly-by-night operations aren't of the same caliber as the SuSEs, Calderas, Turbos, Storms and Mandrakes of this world. Will investors lose faith in the Linux phenomenon, thinking it has been sucked dry? Will the legitimate, committed firms be able to get the capital they can use for delivering top-quality, supported Linux to the masses (and billions of dollars to themselves), ensuring that future generations won't have to suffer through proprietary, buggy operating systems? (And how much do we care about a few opportunistic paper billionaires in light of the legacy we're trying to leave?) Furthermore, when the public “owns” parts of the Linux scene, everyone contributes financially, giving geeks the freedom to develop what they want and giving everyone a common interest in the continued success of Linux. Already, there is so much capital behind Linux, it produces a massive incentive on the part of everyone to keep us alive.

The issue with the new wave of aspiring Linux profiteers has been the reaction of the community, which has been negative. Is it bad that we have had a negative reaction? We do need to protect our integrity as a community (for whatever that means these days), and we probably don't want to see newcomers producing shoddy Linux products and selling them. If the products are imperfect, or the support is bad, or the companies are found out not to be dedicated to the GNU/Linux movement, the public may be more reluctant and distrustful of Linux. We've worked hard, each in our own way, whether coding or documenting, evangelizing or giving tech support, helping out the occasional newcomer getting his system installed, or even “just” using Linux (don't underestimate how big a contribution it is just to make the choice to use Linux), to insure that future generations will have the best possible free operating system. As computers are in their infancy (and humanity at large in an excruciating age), our actions and the direction of our movement can leave a legacy of freedom for a long time to come. We have been given by happenstance and history the task of establishing a technological legacy; as the Buddhist saying goes, we have been given a key to the gates of heaven, but this same key opens the gates of hell. We cannot afford to fail, to curse our people (which at this point ought to mean the whole human race) with a legacy of proprietary software. The cost to humanity when it has to back up and correct this mistake could set progress back immeasurably, and hopefully we'll get our act together before we burn up the entire planet. So, as our reaction protects the integrity of our movement, it is a defensive measure.

The problem with our reaction is this is one of the few times the community has said, “You're not really part of the community; you haven't paid your dues.” It's true that ESR's “How to become a Hacker” almost said something similar, because of the elitist proposition that there is a social circle of hackers and you can't join until they accept you (they call you a hacker; you don't call yourself a hacker) and you have to be so good at hacking and intuit their secret rules. This kind of social organization, based on exclusion and secret social codes, is found in childish youth cultures and is the same “I'm part of the group; you're not part of the group” mentality that leads to race wars and genocide. (Fortunately, Eric's article turns out to be more encouraging than anything else.) Still, isn't exclusion one of the main things the free software movement fights against? Isn't one of the strengths of our community that we accept people regardless of any considerations other than they want to be part of Linux? Eric Raymond has libertarian values, Richard Stallman has socialist values, and Linus just charms everyone. Look at the community at large: we don't even speak the same language, share the same religion, or view the world in the same way. Where else would you find cooperation among such diverse people? Certainly not in typical social cliques where everyone has to think the same, look the same, act the same, talk the same, be the same. Linux has embraced everyone, from the fanatical free-software enthusiasts (who built the software for fifteen years before the apparent overnight success of the Linux kernel) to the greedy cats looking for some cheap way to make a buck, from the genius to the well-intentioned beginner, from all fields of computing and with diverse interests, so why are we now becoming exclusive?

It's probably because we've been forced to protect our community, and as much as I hate to indicate agreement with ESR's interpretation of Linux as a reputation-based selfish-agent economy (which I suspect more than a few people find insulting), we have to protect our reputation. The reason for this is not that we need status to ensure we get better mates (as evolutionary psychologists suggest); the community as a whole needs to see to it that uninformed investors don't pour money into hack-jobs and Linux projects that aren't the very best products we can show to the world (remember, investors poured money into Microsoft, and look what legacy that left for the computer world). The GNU/Linux movement is our chance to set a precedent for the world, to leave the human race a legacy of free software and at least one kernel to run it on. Computers were once elitist tools, and people who should have known better criticized the early Linux pioneers as hypocrites for writing free software for expensive machines. (Apparently, this is somehow hypocritical, probably having to do with the short-sighted assumption that the only value of freedom is saving money in the short run, and with people not foreseeing computers becoming key counterparts to the human being in short order.) It even once seemed strangely perverse to be on a moral crusade over the principles concerning a tool that only the wealthiest one percent of the world owned, but it is becoming clear now that the implications of what happens will soon reach to nearly every living human, as computers are becoming an essential fact of life, soon as important to our own tragic and pathetic age as fire and language were to early humans.

In short, the sad fact of all this is that LinuxOne has hurt the Linux community because it forced us to be exclusive, protective, to say this is “our” operating system but not “your” operating system as well. We lose a kind of innocence, and we run the risk on continuing down this path of “us vs. them”. Already, there is a disturbing alienation between computer communities, each looking down on the others, and while this line of thinking can give a community an identity, it can also cause internal divisions, alienating those who are parts of a few communities, who don't participate in the “our group looks down on your group” game. (In these cases, I should note that I am speaking of the divide between the GNU/Linux scene, the hacking/cracking/phreaking scene, the warez scene, and perhaps even the decrepit demo scene.)

Of course, the LinuxOne situation can also help us, if it is true that that which does not kill us serves to make us stronger. If Robert Tappan Morris had not released his Internet worm years ago, how secure would we actually be today? He got in a lot of trouble for doing the world a big favor. Without hackers (er, “crackers” in Linux parlance) constantly discovering security flaws, how safe would our networks be against real terrorism and corporate espionage? This is not to say that LinuxOne has done us a big favor the way hackers/crackers have; in actuality, it has been about as nice as the guy who first trademarked Linux. It forced us to take a defensive action, but if we are successful, we'll deal with these things now and hopefully we can establish a precedent to extinguish these problems early and get on with more important things.

One other issue remains: that of the whole commercial “side-taking” we end up having to engage in. The whole business of the community standing up and saying that some firms have more right than others to make a buck from the Linux movement ends up polarizing and politicizing us, distracting us from technical considerations and into the market sphere. On one hand, it may signal to the market that Linux is for real and that the community is willing to take a stand against anyone who tries to corrupt or exploit the movement. However, it does pull us down into the commercial sphere, which, while it may be helpful, is horribly trite. And, there is a danger we might make bad decisions, siding with the wrong people, misunderstanding the market, compromising free software principles, undermining our own philosophy, frightening people away from Linux and open source, making ourselves look fickle, disagreeable, uncooperative. If we take too strong a stance, we make ourselves wide open to looking like fools, and worse, to drawing dividing lines in our community. (Though with the rapid exchange of ideas via the 'net, the threat of taking the wrong stance is not particularly big.) Hence, it is probably safest just to ignore LinuxOne, decline any stock offerings, expose the company for what it is, and not harbor too much resentment against the people who made LinuxOne; after all, they're just silly apes being foolish over green bananas.

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