January 14, 2006

Don't stigmatize the suits

Author: Tina Gasperson

Today, really smart but non-tech-savvy business types are founding companies that either sell open source software or make heavy use of it, or both. The interesting part is that, in many cases, these smart guys seem to be trying to hide the fact that they are not well-versed in the technicalities and usage of the very open source software they're selling. Why hide it? Surely the "open source community" has matured enough to appreciate and welcome those who want to promote FOSS without crucifying them because they aren't hackers.

I was interviewing the founder of a new open source software company a few weeks ago because a press release from the company touted its "full embrace" and support of open source technologies. In the founder's Web site bio, he claims to have brought the "spirit of the open community" into this new company. The new company, which doesn't sell open source software but runs completely on the LAMP software stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP), is his second venture; the first is still alive and actually markets OSS solutions like Linux clusters, custom hardware, and even Linux application development.

The company founder is someone I expected to have a background in Unix or Linux, either in programming or systems administration, but as we talked I quickly realized that wasn't the case. He had no experience with computer science. I was intrigued as I continued to probe into the details of his background. He was reluctant to share them with me, but I thought it was great for the story because it's great news for the business of Linux. I won't share all the details of how he discovered Linux, because the interesting part is that he didn't have a technical understanding of the operating system as much as he had an awareness of its market potential. In my opinion, the greatest thing about this story was that he didn't need to be a geek to understand the potential of open source.

But as I said, he didn't want me to know that, even though everyone in his company was using Linux on the desktop, he had no idea what distribution they were running or what kind of productivity software they were using, and had to ask someone. He didn't want me to know that on his own personal laptop, he booted into Windows whenever he needed to get some work done, reserving the Linux partition for times when he just wanted to browse the Internet. But that's fine with me. The only thing about his story that bothers me is the way it appeared to me that he felt he had to create the impression that he's familiar with the "spirit of the open community." It smacks of disingenuity to find out he's never even heard of Fedora Core.

Maybe the reason this executive was afraid to be "outed" was that he was remembering a time when another less-than-geeky CEO had the audacity to market his own Linux distribution. Michael Robertson met with a cool reception from many in the open source software community, and struggled upstream for a long time promoting Linspire as a legitimate GPL offering. Robertson and Linspire are doing pretty well these days, having carved a niche for themselves in the open source community. That's probably because Robertson is extremely strong-willed and has persevered through the adversity, but maybe it's also because the religion of Linux has gotten softer over the years as Linux itself has gotten stronger.

As a former Linux bigot who once longed to bring shame and discredit to companies and entrepreneurs who dared take advantage of Linux or other open source software without first confirming as one of the faithful followers of the "community," I'm now pretty relaxed about that stuff. I'd rather see FOSS flourish in the free market, regardless of exactly who accomplishes it. Call it religious tolerance, or the gospel of inclusion. Or how about just calling it "smart business." I wonder how much more market share Linux could take away from other operating systems if the community would stop trying to scare away smart business with old-school bigotry. Even so, I do have some advice for CEOs who are just entering the world of open source: Don't try to create the impression you know more than you do. The curmudgeons might tolerate your presence a bit better that way.


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