July 29, 2004

Why should I listen to you?

Author: Jem Matzan

Who is Dan O'Dowd and why is his opinion so important that it makes the news on Slashdot? Is he an expert on free software development and embedded operating systems who suddenly admits free software helps terrorists? No, Dan O'Dowd is the CEO of a proprietary software company, using the media as a FUD machine to bash a competing product -- but if you didn't do your research, you wouldn't know that.

This is certainly not the first time this has happened, but is this really news? Why should anyone care what some CEO thinks about products he isn't even selling?

This sort of thing happens quite often in a variety of publications. Slashdot and Groklaw are both very good at finding and exposing FUD. O'Dowd's opinion piece is a particularly inane cheap shot at free software, going beyond the usual interviews and speeches. It's a perfect example of why we should question quotes, statements, and sources in the press more frequently.

Apparently O'Dowd's experience as a CEO of a small company and his B.S. degree (how appropriate) in Engineering have given him the confidence to tell the U.S. Department of Defense what is best for the country. Is the DoD so incompetent and so mixed-up that they need Dan O'Dowd to tell them about foreign threats to national security through software development? Does Dan O'Dowd know more than the National Security Agency when it comes to the security of Linux?

What is bad for me is bad for everyone

The common thread in articles like the Design News piece is that the CEO tries to make a circular argument strongly suggesting that what is bad for his company's profits is also bad for the entire universe. The competition is portrayed as an evil villain (a supporter of the devil, the occult, liberals, conservatives, communists, terrorists -- pick one) bent on destroying all that is good, leaving the only moral and righteous alternative to be the product that the CEO's company sells. This paints the CEO as a hero or savior who will sweep in and sell you a product which is safe and good and perfect. So O'Dowd is implying that America can be safe from terrorism only if we buy his products. I'll take two bottles of snake oil, please!

Let's pick apart Dan's argument briefly. He begins by listing three DoD projects that are using embedded Linux. To me, this says, "I lost these three government accounts to Linux and I'm upset," and it provides the initial motive for writing his FUD article. O'Dowd then goes on to say that "Linux security is too inadequate for defense use," yet he offers no evidence to support that broad claim.

Instead, O'Dowd offers a hypothetical situation: foreign spies and terrorists could "infiltrate" the Linux community to "contribute subversive software" without anyone noticing. That statement shows no understanding of the Linux development process, which demands competent peer review of new code.

O'Dowd spends the next several paragraphs setting up more straw men to knock down, using assumptions that are knowingly or ignorantly false in some critical way.

What gives it all away, though, is the ending. Dan O'Dowd suggests that the only embedded software that the government should use for its projects and devices should be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration's DO-178B standard. Furthermore he goes on to say that the highest qualification within this certification is Level A, and that "several operating systems" meet this standard. O'Dowd wants you to walk away from this article all fired up to demand that the government only use FAA DO-178B Level A certified operating systems for defense projects. Never mind the fact that this is probably the first time you've heard of that certification and the article offers no details as to what it means and what it is supposed to guarantee.

Isn't it a strange coincidence that O'Dowd's company, Green Hills Software, offers products that meet those standards? Whew! We're going to be okay after all, because Green Hills Software has the solution that will save the world. Thank you Dan O'Dowd for selflessly rescuing us all from the clutches of evil!

The DO-178B certification is a very complicated process with many technical details; it can't be summed up in an article. It should be noted, however, that it was designed for the avionics industry, not the defense industry. The DoD has its own standards, like the Defense Information Systems Agency's Common Operating Environment (COE) certification for embedded operating systems. Red Hat has operating systems that are COE certified, as does IBM, Novell, and others. Ironically, Dan O'Dowd's company does not have any COE-certified operating systems, according to the Green Hills Web site. I guess that's why you don't see him demanding that all DoD projects involving embedded operating systems be COE-certified.

Check your sources

Okay, at first the occasional article like this was amusing, but now it's gone too far. It's time to demand that this FUD come to an end before it becomes so common that online news becomes totally irrelevant. If Dan O'Dowd or any of his fellow CEOs at SCO, Microsoft, Sun, etc., want to mislead people into buying their proprietary products, let them do it on their own sites. Design News published Dan O'Dowd's article in their "rant" section, meaning it's clearly an opinion piece. But that opinion carries far more weight when it is published in the same place as genuine news and informative, accurate articles.

I call on all online publications to stop giving corporate FUD-monkeys the attention they crave. Make them pay for their ads in the usual way. Don't give them a free ride at the expense of your readers and your reputation. Don't repeat bad information -- treat corporate lies and propaganda as the bad sources that they are. A CEO is not an expert on anything except perhaps his own products; a CEO is a bad source of information on anything outside of his own company.

Don't print any more FUD without offering the proper research to combat it. Think about this the next time you see some CEO's smiling photo next to his free advertisement on your Web site.

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.

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