April 13, 2001

Do companies need Open Source advocates for rent?

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

In recent weeks, there have been several reports in the technology media, including NewsForge, about missteps large companies have taken in attempts to embrace the Open Source community.

The list of missteps and companies making them is probably too long to list here. In the last couple of weeks, NewsForge has reported on fumbles by IBM and by chip-maker AMD, and because such mistakes are of interest to the Open Source community, we'll continue to report similar stories.

In IBM's case, the Linux-embracing company launched a KDE theme creation contest, but limited the contest to U.S. residents and took the closed-source stance that all submissions became the property of Big Blue.

AMD has supported efforts to port Linux to its x86-64 chip architecture, but on the porting project Web site is a closed-source license that appears to cover all downloads from the site.

Both companies have pledged to fix those problems after they were pointed out. But it seems like both missteps could've been avoided by running the issues past a couple of Open Source advocates either inside or outside the companies.

A certain segment of the Open Source community -- very likely a vocal minority -- has always been quick to label as "clueless" those companies and individuals finding their way in the Open Source world. Still, the community should refrain from giving IBM and AMD a tough time. There have been plenty of examples of companies trying to cash in when Linux was trendy in the stock market -- LinuxOne and Linuxgruven come to mind -- but with IBM and AMD , the companies appear to be genuinely trying to do something right by the Open Source community.

Beyond the sheer numbers of IBM's recent $1 billion-plus investment in Linux, you get the sense when talking to IBM's Linux people (although we're not always sure about the P.R. folks) that they care about Linux and they "get it." I talked to an IBM Linux manager shortly after announcement of the $1 billion investment about fears that IBM would take over Linux. Her answer, basically: IBM wants to help with Linux development whenever that's appropriate, but there's no way the core developers would let IBM take over even if the company wanted to. As for an IBM distribution of Linux, the manager said there's no incentive for IBM to maintain its own distro, with so many good ones already out there.

In the case of the KDE themes contest, it's likely that IBM's marketers or lawyers were more involved in the decision to have the entrees become the property of IBM than the IBM Linux team was.

That was what happened with the AMD-supported x86-64.org Web site. An AMD manager admitted that the license was a silly mistake, and others involved with the site said the AMD legal team still needs to educated about Open Source.

But AMD should get points for including Linux in its 64-bit architecture plans from the time the company announced plans for the architecture last summer.

I haven't seen a lot of vocal critics of those recent missteps, and that's a good thing. The Open Source community needs to pick its battles, and issues such as Bruce Perens' effort to get IBM and other tech companies to rethink their patent policies seems more important in the grand scheme of things.

If IBM and AMD had refused to change their policies after the mistakes were pointed out, now that'd be worth getting upset about. Instead, both companies should be praised for embracing Open Source, despite the almost inevitable stumbling that happens when a large bureaucratic organization embraces a big change.

Think of the first time you played with Linux or BSD and the mistakes you made along the way. Your mistakes weren't made in public in most cases, but large companies don't get the option of making their mistakes in private.

The recent stories in NewsForge and elsewhere have me wondering about a solution for companies thinking about embracing Open Source and the potential landmines they can encounter. Companies like IBM and AMD can afford to hire Open Source advocates, as Hewlett-Packard has done by hiring Perens. Both IBM and AMD can survive some minor mistakes, but what happens when a smaller company makes an attempt to embrace Open Source and screws up in a big way? In some cases, such a mistake could be fatal.

Is there a market for an "Open Source advocate for rent" program? Would companies be willing to pay for a member of the Open Source community to occasionally provide advice on their business plans? I'm sure this happens on a limited basis, and I'm in no way trying to diminish the great work of the many Open Source advocates out there. But there might be a better way to keep companies interested in Open Source from floundering; both the Open Source community and those companies would benefit.

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