What I Learned on Linux Lunacy

by Doc Searls

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 ([email protected]) is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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