June 12, 2004

A splintering Linux community

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

We now have two distinct classes of Linux users whose interests are not the same, and perhaps we have more than that if we want to talk about people who think of software in political rather than pragmatic terms. Can these factions work together, or will tensions between them eventually kill the free software and open source movements?Technical vs. non-technical users

This is split number one. A non-technical user wants to purchase a PC with an operating system pre-installed or install one with little stress, then install the software he or she needs as easily as possible and get to work. This person will never compile a kernel, isn't interested in the difference between NVidia's proprietary drivers and free video drivers or in squabbles over Flash licensing. This is the user sneered at by techies as "Joe Sixpack" or "Luser" or "Grandma." The growth of easy-to-install Linux distros and the proliferation of GUI-based desktop Linux software is rapidly increasing the number of non-technical users. They may now outnumber tech-hip Linux users. If not, they will before long.

Technical Linux users delight in getting the maximum performance out of a machine. They're willing to work endless hours tweaking and fixing and testing the latest software. These are the people you want running your servers. You do not necessarily want them determining what goes into desktop users' machines, especially if they fall into the "GUI is evil" category -- which it may be for servers, but is not for most desktop computer users.

Remember, the difference between Linux and the most popular desktop OS is that unlike the popular OS, every single Linux installation, no matter what kind of eye candy it displays on screen, can be fully manipulated all the way down to the kernel level by anyone who needs this level of control over his or her computer. Those who don't want to use a GUI in Linux aren't forced to do so, even if the box they're using has one installed.

Political differences

Most PC users want a full-featured Internet experience, including Flash animation and access to every conceivable kind of streaming multimedia, plus access to the most popular Instant Messaging servers and protocols. The vast majority of business desktop computer users need to exchange files with colleagues who use proprietary office software. PCs that cannot perform these functions are, in the eyes of most users, crippled.

Telling a person who is accustomed to multimedia on the WWW and easy file exchanges with other computer users to give up these conveniences or have poor versions of them in return for Software Freedom will not gain many Linux converts -- and will hardly gain any converts at all for GNU/Linux.

"We don't care if those people use GNU/Linux," the hard-core Free Software advocate may cry.

Okay.

But on the other side, there are the Linspires, SUSEs, Xandroses, Mandrakes, Mepises, and dozens of others, all pushing Linux into the mass marketplace -- and all of these Linux marketers are feeding back code that can be used by all, so they are members of the Free Software community. But they are also marketers, and expect to make a profit selling and supporting their products, so they tend to include non-free software in their products because this makes those products desirable to a larger number of potential customers.

The weight of Linux development has swung toward commercializers and non-technical users. This is reality.

I personally consider the old-line, hard-core free software crowd necessary for continued GNU/Linux and FOSS development. I worry that in the race to make Linux and free software more usable for more people, some of the basic ideals behind the movement will get lost. And yet, I will admit that I cannot personally live with all the restrictions some of the hardest-core free software people would like to put on my software choices.

Software freedom

I believe we all, individually or corporately, should be able to choose the software that best suits our individual or corporate needs. But there are those outside our community -- like the Microsoft-funded Institute for Software Choice -- who are relentless in their quest to deny the choice of using free and open source software to others.

Within the Linux community, though, I am as much of a software choice advocate as you will find. I believe we all need to respect each other and respect the fact that we all have different computing needs, some of which may (gasp) still require the use of proprietary software from time to time.

To me, the defining "glue" of "The Linux Community" is not so much use of a particular operating system as a commitment to software choice and software freedom; to allowing software authors to choose how they want to distribute their work rather than having someone else dictate terms to them; and to promoting, whenever possible, software licensing that meets criteria laid out in the Open Source Definition.

This definition of "The Linux Community" has plenty of room in it, including room for sub-groups that may not agree with other sub-groups.

And isn't freedom to disagree the most necessary freedom of all?

Category:

  • Linux
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