August 19, 2003

Is Linux becoming closed to innovation?

- by Chris Gulker -
Vinod Khosla, one of Silicon Valley's most successful venture capitalists, says that while he is optimistic about Open Source, he fears that Linux, as a few distributions become dominant, risks becoming "closed." If that happens, he says, innovation will cease and Linux will "no longer matter."

Khosla, a general partner at venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, was quoted last week in a Q&A interview featured on AlwaysOn, a business- and investor-oriented Weblog and user community started by former Red Herring editor-in-chief Tony Perkins.

In that interview, Khosla, regarded as a highly savvy technology observer, says, "If one distribution, like the Red Hat distribution, becomes the de facto distribution, you might actually end up with a closed system. Even though it's 'open,' if everybody starts writing to Red Hat, which is sort of happening, then there's a real danger that you won't see innovation and they'll start charging, which they've already done. And [then] Linux no longer matters."

Khosla, a founder of Sun Microsystems, goes on to compare the situation to Unix and Solaris: "Unix was open until it became Solaris, and then really there were one or two important versions of Solaris and Unix itself became less important."

But what do Linux developers, hard at work in the Open Source trenches think?

We asked an arbitrary selection of small- and medium-sized Open Source developers, a segment that is typically a hotbed of innovation on Linux. Every developer who responded offered the opinion that if Linux is closed and no longer matters, they have yet to notice.

Jason Spisak, vice president of marketing at distro vendor Lycoris, said, "We're not running into that situation at all. Linux is still relatively new technology, especially on the desktop. The best part about an open standards, GPL-based OS like GNU/Linux is that even if one company has a majority share of the market, that doesn't mean I can't use whatever I want and you and I can still share files, collaborate, and co-exist."

John Perr, vice president of marketing at Ximian, maker of enterprise-oriented desktop and applications, recently acquired by Novell, says, "The scenario of Red Hat becoming the de facto distribution and ultimately leading to a 'closing' of Linux and limiting its innovation
seems unlikely. Why?

"- Despite the consolidation of the number of distributions used by
business users, strong geographic disparities in market share remain
(SuSE in Europe, Red Flag in China, Connectiva in Brazil, etc.)

"- A healthy and growing Linux and open source ecosystem of (a) hardware
OEMs/organizations (IBM, Dell, HP); (b) software vendors (not just RH
and SuSE, but Oracle, PeopleSoft, now Novell/Ximian, others); (c)
enterprise IT and developer Linux expertise; and (d) the open source
community. These are all forces for innovation, customization, and
openness.

"- Customer and community reaction to attempts at lock-in at the OS
level. Customers may be willing to sign service agreements for RH
Enterprise Linux for mission-critical applications and databases, but
are and will push back for functions like Web, print, file, and other
commodity servers and desktops. The "Red Hat Linux Project" in part may in part be a recognition of this fact."

Kai Staats, CEO of Terra Soft Solutions, which makes Linux distros for PowerPC, says, "The Internet itself, the online community will keep open source open. There is
some truth to a slight reduction in innovation as the Linux distributions
filter out and only a few survive, but that lack of innovation is matched by
efficiency and professionalism."

Klaus Knopper, developer of Knoppix, a bootable CD Linux distro, says, "I see no danger of a single company 'taking over' GNU/Linux, since
this is simply not possible due to the way the GNU GENERAL PUBLIC
LICENSE works. The recipients of Free Software always have the right to
copy, modify and (re)distribute the software, and the GPL makes it clear
that the recipients MUST be informed about their rights. There are many
distributions and many companies supporting Free Software."

The consensus seems to be that as long as everything that is developed under GNU/GPL goes back to a community that is free to pick it up and modify it -- and users reject proprietary add-ons aimed at locking in a customer base -- Open Source innovation is alive and well. Linux is far from closed, say developers, and, at least as far as they're concerned, it's never mattered more.

Chris Gulker, a Silicon Valley-based freelance technology writer, has authored more than 130 articles and columns since 1998. He shares an office with 7 computers that mostly work, an Australian Shepherd, and a small gray cat with an attitude.

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