Linux for Suits - Picking New Fights

Now that Linux has won, what's the next cause to take on?

The best LinuxWorld Expos were the early ones. There were two in 1999 alone, both in the San Jose Convention Center. The second one, in August, had an official attendance of 14,278. It felt like ten times that many. My favorite memory of that show was sitting among thousands of geeks packed into a vast space where they could hear (though barely see) Linus Torvalds speak, hanging on every word as if Linus were Billy Graham calling the Faithful to a crusade. Never mind that Linus' whole schtick was the antithesis of box office, and that most of what he wanted to talk about—as always—was incremental progress on the Linux kernel.

Linux energy back then was like the electric charge that swells in hills below a gathering thundercloud. The high-tension wires that crossed the computing world sparked and glowed with vast anticipation of a world where the advantages of open over closed, free over captive, common over exclusive, were all as plain as day to the Faithful—but to few others.

Now the storm has passed, lightning has flown, and the world we expected is largely here. In GhandiCon (www.faqs.org/docs/jargon/G/GandhiCon.html) terms (first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win), we've pretty much arrived at GhandiCon Four. Of course, the future is not evenly distributed. Desktop Linux, for example, has been arriving asymptotically for years. All we need to close that gap is one smart hardware OEM move, which has to happen eventually. (See UpFront for the Dell IdeaStorm story, which is very encouraging.)

Meanwhile, the device drivers keep piling up. If we spelled out the whole LAMP stack, it would be more than 145,000 letters long. Today, it's kinda hard to build “solutions” to anything requiring computing and Net connections and not to take advantage of so many free and open building materials. There is also a huge demand market for smart techies who not only know how to build with those materials, but how to improve them as well.

Yet the number of Linux queries (www.google.com/trends?q=linux) on Google has trended downward during the past two years. Although the news volume has held steady, the query volume today is about half what it was at the end of 2003. (That's as far back as Google goes, and it doesn't give precise numbers.)

That's why fighting for Linux today is like fighting for geology, botany or the periodic table. There may be some holdouts around less sensible paradigms, but what's the point? The Linux Revolution has become the Linux Establishment. We've won. Now what?

Good question. (That's what you say when you don't know the answer. Good question.) Here at Linux Journal, we like a good cause as much as the next magazine. And, we'd like to celebrate Linux's victory in exactly the way you'd expect any born fighter to behave: by looking for new fights.

Fights are naturally interesting. That's what story theory says. For a story you need only three elements: 1) a protagonist—somebody or something you care about and can identify with; 2) a problem against which the protagonist struggles; and 3) movement toward a resolution. You don't have a story if your protagonist isn't interesting, the problem is pointless, or if there's no movement toward an end state. That's why sports and war stories are so compelling.

So, what will our story, or stories, be? I'll suggest four and leave the rest up to you.

Citizens vs. Carriers

Linux and the Net have grown together ever since Apache became the standard Web server in the mid-1990s. Yet while Linux rocks on, the Net is becoming trapped in carrier silos. Net users today are no less trapped by their phone or cable companies than personal computer users in 1999 were trapped by Microsoft Windows.

The difference is that every carrier is its own Microsoft, every Net service is as crippled as Windows, and customer choice (in the US, at least) is between Tweedle-telco and Tweedle-cableco—or just one of those. These carriers still look relatively good to customers because the connection speeds they offer (labeled “broadband” or “high speed”) are many times higher than dial-up. It's too easy to forget that dial-up was what broke Net access wide open, making it available to nearly everybody—and did it in spite of the phone companies, rather than because of them. If it hadn't been for the original dial-up ISPs—The Little Garden, Panix, Batnet, Earthlink and even AOL—the Net still would belong only to universities, government and big business.

Now customers think the Net is gravy on top of their phone or cable TV services. They don't realize that the Net is the real base utility, and that it can carry any kind of gravy you like, including telephony and television. Almost nobody talks about all the businesses a wide-open Internet makes possible, mostly because the cablecos and telcos support consumption and discourage production. The “Net Neutrality” fight is a red herring. Most “high-speed Internet” customers have never experienced truly neutral service. Instead, they've enjoyed asymmetrical bandwidth and port blockages, without ever tasting what they've been missing.

Things are much better in some other parts of the world. Japan and Korea have notoriously high bandwidth at low prices, for example. The country with the highest broadband penetration is Denmark, with Estonia not far behind. However, all is not rosy there either. Networks may be fast in Korea, but Microsoft's market share in many categories, including desktops, verges on 100%. Broadband growth in Europe has recently slowed in regions (including Denmark) where incumbent carriers are making comebacks.

The big fight here is between independence and dependence, between citizens and monopolies (or duopolies), between local initiatives—backed in many cases by local governments—and some of the nastiest state and federal politics you're ever going to find. In every case, the protagonists are individuals, local groups, local companies, local governments and local utilities.

The problem they face is a combination of duopoly entrenchment and well-lobbied protection at the federal and state levels. The telcos alone are the biggest-spending lobbying group in US history—even bigger than the pharmaceuticals. And, they don't just work Congress. Some carriers are working at the state level to make it against the law for anybody to carry the Internet other than themselves.

Linux folks can help enormously here, because Linux techies—our readers—know how to build good, strong, reliable, easily fixed and easily improved solutions. And, they know how to do it on the cheap. We've been watering grass roots for up to two decades or more. Stallman taught us what freedom means, and Torvalds taught us how to have fun putting it to use. We have a lot of leverage.

______________________

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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