April 11, 2008

Commentary: the Linux Foundation and the future of Linux

Author: Joe Barr

I came away from the second annual Linux Foundation Collaboration
Summit with mixed feelings. I mean, it's hard not to support the group
that pays Linus Torvalds to spend his time continuing to lead the
poster-boy project for free and open source software. But at the same
time, those golden chains are my biggest concern about the Linux

IBM sponsored the event, and they are the biggest supporter of Linux
in the corporate world. The foundation membership is made up of almost
all the large and and many of wanna-be-large IT firms around the globe
-- including Adobe, which is one of the foundation's newest members.
You can find a complete list of members on
the foundation website.

There is no doubt that the time and money the corporate world has
spent -- and keeps spending -- to support Linux development has been
beneficial to Linux, and therefore to all of us who use the platform.
When world-class IT gurus like Torvalds are freed from the demands of a
day job not directly related to kernel issues, it's a good thing for all
of us. Likewise work on projects like the LSB, which can smooth
a few rough edges keeping some from adoption. But still, I worry about
the price.

As pointed out in Robin Miller's
video interview with Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin
the Linux Foundation at present is focused on a core group of large,
sophisticated Linux users, not on the needs of individual users and
developers or the thousands of small-to-medium-sized companies using or
developing software for Linux. Zemlin also notes that the great thing
about open source is that anyone who wants to can start their own
organization or foundation, and suggests that if the Linux Foundation is
not right for some, they should do just that. While Zemlin's comments
helped to clarify the Linux Foundation's immediate goals and practices,
it didn't really quiet my discomfort.

Before I learned that the press was not welcome in any of the
working-meetings at the summit on days 2 and 3, I saw and heard
rumblings of discontent from more than one ordinary Linux desktop user.
One example: a top-ten list of inhibitors to Linux adoption, created by
a committee of foundation members, contained nothing at all relating to
desktop usage. Nothing. Everything on the list was about back-room
usage. Servers. Big iron.

Wi-fi drivers were mentioned in passing, but not addressed as an
action item. Jittery notebook keyboards/track pad/sundry rodents
weren't mentioned at all. Those two items are certainly on my top-ten
list of inhibitors to adoption, but not on theirs.

It's only natural that the people who are paying developers hard cash
and paying kernel folks' travel and documentation and system
administration costs want to have a say in what those kernel folk and
application developers are focusing on. This is the way things are
supposed to work. The problem is, or may become, that the close
relationship between core Linux developers and large IT firms may
overshadow the wants and needs of those who want Linux to become the
best desktop platform, not just the best server platform.

With the current makeup of the Linux Foundation membership, that may
never happen. The money people are concerned about money. IBM won't
make more money if Linux does well on the desktop, but they will if it
does better on big iron. HP and Dell make so much money from selling
Windows on desktops that they have precious little motivation to work
harder to see Linux grow in that space. That's fine, too.

That is, that's fine unless the wants and desires of IBM, HP, Dell --
substitute any other members names for any of those three, I use them
out of familiarity, not to pick on them -- so totally dominate the time
and the efforts of free software developers that Linux never gets to the
next level as a desktop platform. Money talks. And when Linux
Foundation money says do this, and this means backroom stuff, then the
desktop will continue to get short shrift.

Now, there are firms interested in seeing Linux do well on the
desktop. But by and large they are the smaller firms among the
foundation's membership. They are trying to make a go with small, cheap
laptops or eye-pleasing desktop distributions. And they don't bring the
same money to the table that the big boys do.

What's the answer to this dilemma? I don't know. But I do worry
over it. So does Paul Elliott, a longtime member and officer of the
Austin Linux Users Group. He read about the summit in the local paper,
and tried to attend. Unfortunately, he showed up on the second day and
attempted to register as a journalist, when the press was no longer
welcome in the talks and workshops. He blogged about his unhappiness with the
on the LUG's website.

It doesn't make good business sense to have reporters sniffing around
business meetings. I won't argue with that. To a corporation,
information needs to be sanitized, not free. PR handlers need to be
present when management speaks to the press. This is life in the
corporate world. I don't have a problem with that, except when that
same lack of transparency begins to enter the FOSS world, as it seems to
have done at this Linux event. It doesn't belong here. It's not part
of our culture, or our community. I worry about what we're giving up
for the corporate dole.

I hope that the Linux Foundation's plans to broaden the membership base and
to address the concerns of individual developers and users, as mentioned in the
Zemlin interview, come to fruition, and that as they do they prove my worries to
unfounded and unnecessary.


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