Open source, closed networks

Linus Torvalds has probably walked many miles in those Birkenstock sandals of his, but to some degree they are the reason the open source movement has failed to take some important steps forward.

Since it started making big headlines about three or four years ago, Linux — the Unix-derived software kernel Torvalds created as a university student in Finland — has been the perfect blank sheet onto which the dreams of developers, hardware vendors and channel players have been projected. On this, the tenth anniversary of its creation, it’s time for all of us to snap out of it.

It’s exciting, the concept of an operating system that avoids the restrictive control of an industry conglomerate. Linux promised an era of cheaper, more reliable, customizable computing, particularly for the server market. Imagine a company that anyone could join or leave at will, contributing what they thought important simply for the good of everyone else involved. Though it was called an open source “community,” this was really more like a software commune, and denim-clad Torvalds — who looks like a 60s-era Berkeley student — embodied its image.

When I wrote my first Linux feature in 1998, industry veterans were asking how seriously enterprise CIOs would take an OS that didn’t have the backing of a Microsoft-type entity. Many of them are still wondering. Though there has been some progress, it has come at the hands of IT managers who have surreptitiously installed Linux without telling the higher-ups. This what-they-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-them approach has never been an effective way of changing corporate policy, any more than it has been with child-parent relationships.

Like the dot-com companies who began hiring older managers that would bring grey-hair respectability to meetings with financiers, Linux needs credibility. But to do so threatens the developmental accessibility which has been the OS’s primary attraction. There was a time when the companies set up around various distributions, like Red Hat and Caldera, seemed to answer this problem. But Red Hat only recently showed a profit for the first time in its first quarter results, and many other firms, like SuSE, have been too busy downsizing to create any positive buzz around the platform.

On the other hand, attempts by companies like Sun Microsystems and Be Inc. to offer quasi-open versions of their operating systems have been met with suspicion or ridicule by most Linux supporters. It’s a no-win situation: keeping the kernel free promotes so many variations that enterprises using Linux would lack important standards. Those brave enough to start any sort of standards body, however, have been treated like totalitarian overlords.

Though it takes years for operating systems to establish a firm hold, Linux will be forever handicapped by its lack of accountability. An open source world is not a computing utopia but an IT anarchy upon which CIOs would be foolish to stake their professional reputations. Linux will likely become a drawing board for developers who tinker with the code before they test out solutions in mission-critical environments — on Windows NT or Unix. This is programming as escapism, and Linux will be the playground where such brainstorming happens. It may not be the way everyone thought Linux would grow up, but it’s a place where innovators like Linus Torvalds would no doubt feel very comfortable.

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