March 10, 2004

Fragmentation hurts open source advocacy efforts

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Last week one of my colleagues said, "The technology of Linux seems to be doing a better job of converging, while the 'support orgs' around it are acting more and more like the Unix fragmentation of old." I agree. Too many Linux, open source, and free software advocacy groups seem to act as if they are alone in the universe, or waste time arguing with competing advocates, instead of cooperating with others to achieve their goals.One mini-feud I find especially irksome is between EgovOS and OSSI. These groups both work to increase open source use by government agencies, but they never seem to work together. Look at the online blurb for EgovOS's upcoming Open Source in Government conference. There's no evidence that OSSI exists, let alone plans to participate. Conversely, EgovOS doesn't exist anywhere on the OSSI Web site (except for a small link on this page pointed out to us by OSSI director John Weathersby shortly after this article was posted).

You'd think that EgovOS and OSSI would cooperate. Their directions and methods are different, but both have the same objective: More government open source use. Are egos getting in the way? Are there personality conflicts between the groups' leaders? Whatever their differences, setting them aside and sharing resources would make both groups more effective.

Disclaimer: OSDN and/or its corporate parent, VA Software, have sponsorship involvement with both groups -- and with most others mentioned in this commentary.

OSI, LI, FSF, OSDL, and others

Yes, we know there are differences between open source and free software. For a journalist, the most obvious one is that if you say "free software" instead of "open source" you don't get hate mail from open source supporters, while if you say "open source" without including "free software" as a separate phrase, or try to lump the two together, you get anger from free software supporters.

Back in the late '60s, I was one of millions who thought civil rights and peace were good ideas, but I was also one of millions who got turned off by the way these ideas were espoused by their most vocal supporters. A large factor in our turned-offness was the endless, "Our group is the One True Keeper of The Flame, and the rest are pretenders," yammer. Why do we need to see this same behavior repeated by open source advocates 35 years later?

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is king of the free software hill because founder Richard M. Stallman invented the idea as we know it today, and because FSF is still and always the keeper of the GPL flame. Sadly -- and this may be more of a commentary on the rest of the world than on the FSF -- ardent espousal of the idea of making all software freely reusable and redistributable by all comers turns off a lot of people, including a majority of professional software developers. Techno-utopian ideals are great to hold, but they are unlikely to sweep the world within our lifetimes. I won't comment on the use of the word "free" and how it is not necessarily appropriate for promoting widespread adoption of open source software; this discussion is so old that I can only write about it as humor these days.

Linux International (LI), has essentially become a private speaker's bureau for Jon 'maddog' Hall -- who is a great guy and a fine speaker, so this is not necessarily a bad thing -- but the LI Web site is years out of date, and needs to change in order to accurately reflect what LI is (and is not) doing in 2004 and beyond, not what it was trying to do in 2001 or 2002.

Open Source Initiative (OSI) decides whether software licenses do or do not meet the Open Source Definition. It works with individual developers, companies, and government agencies to make more of their software more open, and to use more open source software. I personally feel this group should concentrate more on defining the concept of open source and less on advocacy, but my opinion is not important. In any case, OSI's lobbying efforts are generally quiet and helpful rather than loud and obnoxious, and OSI seems willing to cooperate with almost anyone -- or any group -- that has similar objectives without getting into ego-based conflicts.

OSDL -- Open Source Development Labs -- has recently expanded far beyond its original purpose: Development of Carrier Grade Linux. It has broad corporate support (and funding), and CEO Stu Cohen keeps bringing in new (corporate) members from all over the world. Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton hang their hats at OSDL. The OSDL Linux Legal Defense Fund is a major shield against SCO and other anti-Linux court threats. OSDL is a professionally-run "big tent" organization that is doing plenty of good for the Linux and open source communities -- and by extension, for the free software community.

Other groups? I have no idea how many there are. I have always considered Linux User Groups (LUGs) the heart of the whole thing, but that may be because I'm a grassroots kind of guy -- and because it was LUG members who first helped me get going with Linux and my local LUG is still where I go for most tech support. Besides LUGs, there are many Linux, open source, and free software lobbying and advocacy groups all over the world. Some are big, some are small. Some are well-funded, and some are purely volunteer action operations that don't have (or need) much money to operate.

In a general, the more advocacy, the merrier. Problems only come when advocacy groups squabble instead of working together, because this increases potential converts' fears that Linux will end up doing a Unix-style fragmentation, and I believe overcoming this fear is necessary if we want enterprise Linux uptake to accelerate rather than keep going at its current rate or, worse, gradually tail off as proprietary vendors (inevitably) increase their attacks on open source -- and on the people who believe this new method of software development and distribution is destined to overcome the proprietary development model that has dominated the industry for the last 30 years.


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