What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

The people and ideas on last week's Linux Lunacy cruise confirmed what the next big story is going to be.

Editors' Note: The following is this week's issue of SuitWatch, senior editor Doc Searls's biweekly newsletter about business and Linux. Subscribe to SuitWatch here.

So how many of you guys got to dine with Linus and his family every night last week? Not that it matters (and it doesn't), but that's what I did, among other things, on our second annual Linux Lunacy Geek Cruise, which returned to port in Ft. Lauderdale this past Sunday.

I had high expectations for the trip, and all of them were exceeded. I won't go into the details of what went on; see the Linux Journal web site on Friday for a nice long report. But I will give you a brief summary of what became a lot clearer to me—and to everybody else, I think—by the end of a week on a ship with Linus, Guido van Rossum, Eric Raymond, Ted Ts'o, Randall Schwartz, Steve Oualline and a star chamber of other alpha geeks. The short of it is Linux is an even bigger phenomenon than it appears to be, and so is the open-source development model that produced it.

There is something a little bit surreal about sitting in a meeting of the Jamaica Linux Users Group (JaLUG), in a cafe beside a waterfall—with Linus, Ted, Eric and other luminaries in the front of the room and an attentive audience filling the rest of the space—while a veteran local IBM executive stands up and describes the adoption of Linux by the company's customers with adjectives like “huge”.

I'll confess to something here: for the last year or more, I've been a bit worried that Linux' quiet success threatened to make its story less interesting. Now I'm convinced there's a new story in the works—a much bigger one, at least for those of us called “suits” (like, say, the IBM guy). It's about the end of the software business as we know it, and the beginning of whatever replaces it.

The business we knew wanted software to be expensive, high margin stuff. It wanted to lock customers into dependencies. And it wanted to hold on to its position as the paradigmatic hot business category, the kind of business high-rolling investors would help drive to huge successes in the stock market.

That's over, and it's not because a pile of overfunded dot-com fantasies crashed to the ground. It's over because the market doesn't want it any more. The market wants something more like professional services—architects, designers and builders. Good businesses all, but not the kind that are “venture scale”, as they say.

The market wants generic $200 workstations that run generic operating systems and generic productivity applications. They don't want to pay more for the applications than they do for the workstations. In fact, they don't want to pay for anything other than expertise. And they don't want that expertise tied up in stuff that nobody else is in a position to understand.

Obscurities are out. We don't want it from our suppliers, our accountants, our architects, our builders or our building materials. We want it least of all from suppliers of stuff on which our business lives depend. Expensive opaque operating systems, no matter how popular they currently remain, are on a terminal track. Transparent generica is what we're using to build infrastructure today. We've got that with the Net, we're getting it from Linux, and we'll get it from our productivity applications too.

There will still be room for plenty of commercial activity in the software business. But the force of commoditization is going to bring the big franchises down, simple as that.

The latest evidence comes from one of the founding successes of the productivity software business: Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus (and later the cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among other good things). This past week Mitch's new project, the Open Source Applications Foundation, made its debut. Its first goal: to fill in a blank in the roster of productivity generica, with a new personal information manager—code name, Chandler.

I just got off the phone with Mitch a few minutes ago. When I asked him about what inspired OSAF, he named (what else?) Linux. “Linux is a huge inspiration”, he said. When I asked him why, he replied, with sarcastic humor, “One could hardly fail to notice Linux.”

But Mitch didn't think about acting on what he noticed until a mutual friend introduced him to Linus and the two had lunch. “It was pretty darn inspiring”, Mitch says.

When you think about it, and put a business hat on, the idea that Linux could start as this little hobby project that would in the course of less than a decade become this extremely popular piece of software that people would bet on for mission critical applications...how did that happen? Nobody is in charge of it. Nobody owns it. It's not controlled by a corporation. It fundamentally depends on cooperation and collaboration.... It's an amazing model of how to get stuff done. And very inspiring. It provided a clue to me about how I was going to get back into software.

Mitch went on to talk about breaking market inertia. Although OSAF is a nonprofit organization, Mitch makes it clear that OSAF is a bet on the marketplace. It's an expression of faith that productivity applications is an area where little if any money is left to be made. But it's also an area where a lot more business could happen if somebody bothered to finish building out the basics. That's why he's back.

So on this Halloween, we've got something going here that's more than a big BOO to Microsoft. It's a loud and clear message for the software industry to find new ways to make money. I think there are plenty of those. But we won't begin to see them until we face the facts about productivity desktop applications.

Doc Searls (doc@ssc.com) is senior editor of Linux Journal.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Software that works.

LaPierre's picture

All of the Open Source people have really helped us guys who are locked into using proprietary software. You guys with your open source software, which actually works, have given the proprietary software folks a kick in the seat of the pants. The proprietary software companies have been more interested in keeping their stuff proprietary than in having software that is secure and works. Thanks to all of you open source folks. You are pulling the whole industry upwards.

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

What are you smoking? You really think that businesses will put Linux on the desktop with the thought of replacing Microsoft products ... fat chance. At best they use it as a replacement for the expenseive conventional UNIX workstations that come from companies like SUN and HP. Face it, Linux is still a fad OS that is run by techno weenies (me being one of them). The average Joe is not ready for Linux, or actually Linux is not ready for the average Joe.

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

It's got great potential, it just has bad marketing to the masses and some religious types who make RTFM a mantra to scare of the newbies cause its their sandbox. Separate the nuts and its a great mixer.

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

Keep dreaming...

The Creation of the UNIX Operating System

Anonymous's picture

After three decades of use, the UNIX computer operating system from Bell Labs is still regarded as one of the most powerful, versatile, and flexible operating systems (OS) in the computer world. Its popularity is due to many factors, including its ability to run a wide variety of machines, from micros to supercomputers, and its portability -- all of which led to its adoption by many manufacturers.



Transparent generica

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the sharing your thoughts on this Doc. There was one
statement in particular that i think goes a long way towards
explaining what has happened,

Re: Transparent generica

chaz03's picture


Elegantly put. I couldn't agree more. The RIAA and MPAA are not the only ones that are having problems facing the inevitable future and their inability to redesign their business model to suit that future. The internet has indeed allowed people of all walks to communicate with others of like-minded interest in a way that has never before occurred. This in itself lent itself to the creation of Linux as we know it. After all, if Linus T. had to work on everything by himself in "isolation", then we would not have the OS that we have today. It would likely still have come into creation, but it wouldn't be nearly where it is today.

After all, when one is employed by a company with the express purpose of creating software, there is not the same commitment usually, as one will find in a programmer creating software because they enjoy or need it.

Corporations will likely never disappear, but they will have to drastically rethink their place in the "grand scheme of things". They have taken from the public for far too long without returning anything of substantial value. This practice will have to be abolished, or the public will simply move to another supplier that is willing to meet their individual needs. This is yet another freedom that the GNu/Linux movement has brought to us all.

What about GNU ??

Anonymous's picture


I would hope in a large public forum extolling the benefits of free software that some credit would given to the GNU project and the FSF.

Mitch Kapor's quote is most troubling:

"... the idea that Linux could start as this little hobby project that would in the course of less than a decade become this extremely popular piece of software that people would bet on for mission critical applications."

While the linux kernel is a very important component of the GNU/Linux operating system, without GNU's gcc, libc, binutils and hundreds of other UNIX compatibility interfaces there would be no "software that people would bet on for mission critical applications".

I seriously doubt FSF would call the GNU project a "little hobby project" -- many people have commited their time, money and mental energy to making a free operating system. A free system that many of us enjoy today.



Re: What about GNU ??

fyl's picture

I don't want to discount the impact that the GNU project had on Linux but we also can't discount the impact Linux had on the GNU project nor the other non-GNU contributions to the project.
First, Linux did start as a hobby project. It was never designed to go the way it went. And, when Dr. Dobbs' presented Linus with the most innovated software product of the year award close to 10 years ago now, I made the point (yes, I did the presentation) that Linus didn't get his ego involved in the project. The reason Linux succeeded where other Open Source OS projects stalled is because of Linus' ability to accept input from others.
That acceptance lead to the GNU code being incorporated, BSD code being incorporated and hugh contributions directly to Linux. If you don't believe that, look at your Ethernet drivers. You can bet they were written by Don Becker for LInux.
Giving credit where credit is due, Linus, like RMS and hundreds of others are clearly brilliant programmers. But, the openness (meaning you could join the club) and sense of community is what has made Linux the success it is.
From what I have seen and heard, Linux Lunacy II was a chance for all attendees to be part of that club and participate in that community.

Re: What about GNU ??

Anonymous's picture

I could not agree more.
This apparent newbie would also do well to familiarize himself with the strengths and weaknesses of existing products. Maybe if I had millions to blow, I would want the control to start it all over from scratch, but if he expects the masses to contribute to it, he had better start by looking at what is there.
His desire to sell the source to people who do not open source their software means that he is committed to reimplementing ianything GPLed or MPLed, etc. from scratch, disregarding other work. Sounds more like building yet another empire. It has been done before, such as in Mozilla, but is it warranted in this case with so much work already in place?
Does that mean he will be using GPL, or something else?
Perhaps in three or five years, it will pan out as everything he had hoped it would be and will be of sufficient obvious value to establish itself. As with Mozilla, there will be less motivation until it does to contribute.
By the time it is finished, will it be relevant and sufficiently better than existing efforts that people will have been improving during those years? There are great ideas out there, but emulating Outlook is not my dream.
Using RDF to build Mail... Mozilla already does that. But if he wants to sell it exclusively to commercial bodies, he won't be able to use the code... etc.

Re: What about GNU ??

Anonymous's picture

As far as not giving proper credit to GNU software goes, OK; I can see that. Really though, one quote is not enough to decide what his views are regarding how much credit should go to GNU software.

The rest of your comment though, I don't understand. What are you talking about? Where did he ever say that he wanted to sell the source? According to the column, the organization he is starting is non-profit and the money he hopes to make he expects to make indirectly. Perhaps you are speaking from information you read about this in another place. If this is so, readers here would understand better if you pointed this information out. If your conclusions about what he is doing come solely from this column, then you are reading things into this that not only are a stretch but seem to contradict what the column says.

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

Yet more lack of credit where credit is due.

Thank you Richard Stallman!

Some of us remember who did what.

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

I think we should use GNU/Linux and not just Linux when discussing this OS.This is what Richard Stallman wants , which is truly his.

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

I agree whole-heartedly. Richard Stallman and the "Gnu" foundation is the frame work that Linux is built on. I'm not criticising Linus. The guy is a genius! But progress has been evolutionary, not revolutionary. With open source software, the future is bright. There will be new Linus Torvolds (spelling?) and new Richard Stallmans and things will progress more and more rapidly. The beginning was GNU!

Yes, thank you RMS...

Anonymous's picture

and the FSF, and the EFF, and all those striving to preserve our freedoms in the digital age!

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

Yes, thank you RMS for all your work that you and those who believe in your vision have done and continue to do. Here's hoping that the Free Software movement strenghtens and spreads.

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

I, too, would like to say 'thanks' to RMS for having the vision and the conviction to set us on a path with heart.

Richard, if you're listening, you are a giant to whom we owe a debt that can never be repaid. Rest assured that, though we may not be the luminaries of a movement, there are millions of us who remember...

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

I attended the Linux Lunacy Conference with the thought that if I picked up one or two ideas then the trip would be worth it. I far exceeded any expectations I had comming into the trip.

This was an opportunity to spend time with some of the best and brightest people on the planet. The diversity was amazing. This was no pep ralley. Honest answers to questions. Personal Integrity and sincerity in abundance!

I was like the kid in the candy store! This was some good stuff!

I was on a belated Honeymoon trip so my better half kept me on a tight string and probably out of trouble. The only complaint I could have is that the time went so fast and I didn't get the opportunity to spend more time with what I consider an extended family.

Linux is involed in an Evolutionary Cycle. It is making it's move into the desktop market for the same reasons it has been so successful in the server market. It works! Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed and I am confident they will be. This is Evolution not Revolution.

My association with Linux has come trough a Trail of Tears. I just want to see something that works, is secure as possible, and helps my clients become more productive. I see Linux as a tool to accomplish this. A very powerful tool that is inheriently task oriented, adaptable, and comprehensive.

My wife attended some of the Open Sessions. I haven't seen her Laugh as much in quite some time. She found us all quite amusing.

Now that I'm back home I'm looking at all the areas that need attention and all the activity that is comming up. I get a little excited!



Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

Computer technology has become a fundamental underpinning for all aspects of modern society, and modern society can't keep advancing and under a system of closed technology where the direction and pace of development is based on the financial interests of a few huge corporations.

Under the Open Source model, efforts such as Linux are driven not by competition, but by common needs for the efficient, speedy development of technology. This type of cooperation was used in the past with hunting, then farming, then in the arts and in the world of science, and now it is happening with computer technology.

Mankind has always worked together to achieve efficiency and speed in the activities that are most important for his survival and advancement. It's inevitable, and in ten years, nobody will be looking back.

Hmmm, not unlike hardware

Anonymous's picture

Once upon a time it was hardware that was the high margin business and the PC and Intel server has steadily eroded hardware into a commodity. Linux does at the OS what Intel did to the water-cooled mainframe.

Re: Hmmm, not unlike hardware

Doc's picture

That last line is worthy of a quote in Who Said It, which runs in the UpFront section of the magazine. If you want attribution, email me your name. I'm doc@ssc.com.

Re: What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

Anonymous's picture

I think this story shows how Linux is a great factor for good

on the whole, although there's a somewhat disturbing small afterthought in me... (if it's at all possible): what if a government controled it's citizens internet usage in much the same way...?

Let's hope it'll never be an issue. Thank you all for a very interesting and informative article and thanks for many years of good quality magazine making!

(Only a pity I had to use this OS and this Browser today :)

but hey, we'll still get there yet! one day very soon! ;)