September 6, 2001

Linux must be an underdog to succeed

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Okay, all the Linux stocks have tanked, and analysts are yowling loudly that Linux may never be a competitive desktop operating system. But we're suddenly seeing a burst of mainstream press coverage sympathetic to Linux and Open Source. Is it possible that Linux, in order to get widespread media attention, must be viewed as a hobby thing rather than as commercial software?
When IBM touts Linux, it is not much of a story. Microsoft may be huge, but IBM is huger. Ho-hum. One big company against another. Sun, HP and other computer giants can boost Linux all they want, but it's still the same old, same old. We all know members of this crowd are only interested in Linux because they expect to make money from it, if only because they can eventually gain a competitive edge in some markets if they don't have to pay Microsoft's license fees.

When Linux companies were riding high and major Linux conventions drew surging hordes of not only the faithful but also of eager would-be converts, Linux was seen as a power, one that had, even, an air of inevitability about it. IPO and VC money was being thrown at Linux. Linux company corporate officers and key employees were buying new SUVs and upscale houses, and were becoming much like proprietary software company people in their other spending habits, too. Once again, not worth many stories aside from a few generic "excesses of Silicon Valley" commentaries rewritten to apply to high-profile Linux figures.

Now Linux is on the ropes, at least from a corporate financial viewpoint. Suddenly Linux is an underdog again, and the people who make it are being recast as dedicated volunteers going up against the Evil Empire. Any day now, we can expect to see a musical called "Damn Windows," featuring a seductive song with a chorus that goes, "Whatever Ballmer wants, Ballmer gets ..."

Nothing makes a better drama than a seemingly hapless person or group going up against a seemingly invincible foe. David vs. Goliath. The old Washington Senators against the New York Yankees. The Minnesota Twins against the New York Yankees. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays against the New York ....

[ED -- Robin, quit with the baseball stuff already. We get the message. And the Devil Rays are not a fair comparison with Linux, because Linux is major league and they aren't!]

Okay, boss. I was just getting into the sports analogy, but whatever you say. (*sigh*)

Anyway, my point is, writers love "Underdogs vs. Evil Power" stories. They are fine morality tales no matter which way they turn out. If the Underdogs win, than it was obviously the result of their all-around goodness and Excellent Character, while if the Evil Power wins, it teaches us all that, at the end of the story, the Good Guys can whistle their way joyously into the sunset, happy that even though they lost they Did Their Best, while the Evil Power is left to gloat joylessly over a hollow victory.

Despite his riches, Steve Ballmer never looks very happy, does he?

Now look at these happy Linux Guys.

Who would you rather hang out with, even if Ballmer and the Linux people were equally on the side of Goodness?

Given a choice between Microsoft's management and a rag-tag bunch of part-time Linux developers, who would you rather cast as the "hero" in a story if you were a reporter trying to come up with something interesting and dramatic on a tight deadline? And if you were that reporter, wouldn't you rather report on a story with the same classic (and endlessly endearing) plot as Jack and the Beanstalk than on a conflict between two sets of corporate greedheads?

Thought so.

And this is why Linux, in order to keep getting favorable attention from popular media, must remain in the underdog's role as long as possible.


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