Linux in Government: Neglecting the Community, a Commentary

by Tom Adelstein

When one compares the enterprise market to the consumer market, one can understand why Red Hat, Novell SuSE, IBM, HP and Sun have put their focus on the enterprise market. That doesn't provide accountability to the tens of thousands of people who made GNU/Linux competitive in the enterprise market in the first place, however. So, let's look at the current situation.

Today, the shining star of Linux success sits atop the government sector, including the DoD; state and Federal agencies; related industries and the vendor community. Logic dictates that Linux vendors would chose a $200 billion market sector with over 10,000 competing vendors and higher profit margins. Few would argue that taking on the consumer sector with half the revenue potential, fewer competitors, fewer opportunities and tiny profit margins makes sense. After all, it's not personal, it's just business.

As Jonathan Schwartz of Sun eloquently put it, "Linux is a social movement". As a social movement, pure Linux vendors need to show some consideration to the community that gave them the economic advantage that allows them to compete in the enterprise space. I for one participate so I can have an alternative to Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X on my desktop.

Companies that benefit from the development efforts of volunteers have, at least, a social debt to pay. Establishing decent and relevant Linux community relations departments would make for a good first step. Recognizing the motives of the at-large GNU/Linux community also would help. Even a "thank you" every now and then would sit better than the blank stares we see at LinuxWorld.

Two Distinct Markets

Whenever I read an analyst's commentary about how Linux isn't ready for the desktop, I respond with some disbelief. If we translate the analyst's remarks from their subtext, we usually discover that Linux isn't ready for the analyst's desktop. I run into few if any journalists who can do much more than use their computers as word processors. Even the best amongst them haven't heard of Linux.

How do I know this?

I have press credentials, and I pitch articles to publications. I attend press club meetings, go to seminars, correspond with colleagues and take up shop in the media areas of conventions. I have seen a plethora of journalists wind up with Linux and open source as part of their beats who literally do not know the meaning of either term. So, they cut and paste press releases and call someone in the IT community to get a quote or two. That doesn't make them authorities on Linux as a desktop platform, yet they portray themselves as such.

The information void within the media exists on the consumer side--the side we wake up to in the morning and read for news and information. Now, move over to reseller news and government magazines, and GNU/Linux has beat writers looking for stories. Also, look at those publications advertising sections, and you find the usual suspects spending money on big spreads.

Even when the major Linux vendors establish community relations departments, they do not set them up for the people looking to run Linux on their home computers. The community relations departments focus on doing seminars for the Navy, the Department of Homeland Security, EDS and the Oil and Gas Producers of Texas. Their definition of the community does not include the people that I call the Linux Community.

Two Markets, Two Conversations

The people who want to move away from Microsoft and Apple would like to see Linux on their home computers. They would like to read about it in in People magazine, Information Week or the technology section of their local newspapers.

Unfortunately, Linux consumers have to go looking for Linux news. Usually what they find is press that focuses on the business market. Linux consumers should realize they're listening in on the wrong conversation. When Jonathan Schwartz writes in his blog, he's not writing to retail customers. He's having a conversation with someone else, a business user.

Jonathan Schwartz is President and COO of a company that does not make computer products for consumers. Sun doesn't make a laptop or a $499 Celeron workstation with a monitor and printer included. You won't find iPods in the Sun catalogue. Simply put, he's not talking to the general Linux community or to the typical Linux Journal or reader. He's writing to enterprise customers residing in a place where Microsoft occupies a spot among 10,000 vendors.

Jonathan Schwartz has a significant market to address, as Sun has a two-decade history of putting workstations in businesses and enterprises. One company that moved from Seattle to Chicago has 200,000 employees, and 50% of their users are on Solaris workstations. When I consulted at Ericsson, 30% of the workstations had Sun labels on them.

So when Matthew Szulik made his infamous statement, he also was talking about the enterprise market. At the time, Salon wrote:

Matthew Szulik, chief executive of Linux vendor Red Hat, said on Monday that although Linux is capable of exceeding expectations for corporate users, home users should stick with Windows: "I would say that for the consumer market place, Windows probably continues to be the right product line," he said. "I would argue that from the device-driver standpoint and perhaps some of the other traditional functionality, for that classic consumer purchaser, it is my view that [Linux] technology needs to mature a little bit more."

The 10,000 or so vendors in the enterprise market probably read the statement correctly and didn't react as the Linux consumer most likely did. Szulik also said, "Linux is capable of exceeding expectations for corporate users....". That statement stands consistent with the market Red Hat has chosen to pursue.

I have one little problem with what Szulik said, however. Red Hat more than any other company has benefited from the GNU/Linux community. Dave Whitinger of said it best in an interview I did with him: "I remember walking into Bob Young's office as he was literally giddy with delight that he had just obtained a million dollars from an investor. I asked what he had to give in return for the million, and Bob exclaimed, 'Only one third of the company!'"

Consider that for a second or two. At one point, Red Hat was so dependent on the GNU/Linux community that it needed only a small equity position to function. I wouldn't mind so much that Red Hat stays mainly in the enterprise market space if it put some effort into the consumer space. By the company's own admission, work done on Fedora--the free project--benefits Red Hat products, and those remain aimed at the enterprise.

What About the Consumer?

As Matthew Szulik said in reference to the consumer, "from a device-driver standpoint and perhaps some other traditional functionality...[Linux] technology needs to mature a little more". We also can take his statement a little further and add that Red Hat has no intentions of spending any money supporting the community or working with vendors to get Linux ready for the consumer market. Red Hat now belongs to the league of publicly traded companies, and they invest where they see a return.

The Linux consumer remains left with a high-quality operating system, some workarounds that let people run software made for Microsoft Windows and some community-based projects. Linux does work for many consumers, as it does for me. But, I'm not as demanding as some Microsoft Windows home users. I am as demanding as other journalists who need help adding an attachment to an e-mail, and Linux works great for my primary desktop.

Of the Linux vendors, the company with the least stake in Linux and the worst consumer relations group has given more to the GNU/Linux community--Sun. Few of us doubt that a Linux desktop would exist if Sun had not bought, paid for and given StarOffice to the community. Let us not forget the Mozilla and GNOME projects staffed by Sun employees. Sun also put Real Networks players and servers in our hands and continues to march forward with its open-source joint venture called the Helix project.

Frankly, most of us would expect less from Sun than what it has given. Sun even aimed its desktop at the enterprise market. And, Sun's development efforts have business stamped all over them. Yet, the Java Desktop System (JDS) user community has rallied around the Sun Linux desktop with some surprising developments. If we look carefully, this may develop into a model for potential Linux users wanting what Windows home users have.

Approximately eight weeks ago, a group of volunteers helped by the Open Source Software Institute launched a project to bridge the gaps between an enterprise desktop and a consumer desktop. The community organized three initiatives, including providing additional software, HOWTOs and support resources. As an example, the community team has built or repackaged entertainment paks, such as collections of games, media players, interoperable clients, personal finances software, upgraded versions of browsers, DVD burners, a new build of the 2.6.8 kernel and so on.

The JDS user community project remains self-funded. It also serves as a model for other distributions. Instead of a vendor lock-in, the community can turn its attention to helping the desktop consumer. Imagine how much more this could serve the Linux user if all major distributions helped community projects build consumer applications.

What Does This Have to Do with Linux in Government?

In a recent article I wrote, I mentioned the review performed by the California Air Resources Board. The reviewer complained about the lack of a codec for Window's Media formats, NetWare Clients and other items often found on the consumer desktop. One week later, those items showed up in the above-mentioned community forum.

As Linux distributors march to the beat of their enterprise wins, they will continue to discover that the community is the source of their real success. As such, they owe the community better relationship managers than those they have furnished so far.

Government has turned more and more to off-the-shelf components for projects such as the Mars Rovers. It might be the efforts of a few Linux advocates who build a DVD encoder that make it possible to discover a cure for some deadly disease. So, let's not forget the people who brought Linux so far in the beginning. You need us.

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant locally and nationally. He's the co-author of the upcoming book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has written numerous articles on Linux technical and marketing issues as a guest editor for a variety of publications. His latest venture has him working as the webmaster of

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