Has Linux outgrown evangelism?

The Canadian Linux community may need to put a plug on preaching if it wants to encourage the adoption of open source software, a government-commissioned report warns.

Sponsored by the Information and Communications Technology Branch at Industry Canada, Public Works & Government Services

Canada, and the Treasury Board Secretariat, a draft version of Open Source Software in Canada was released for comment last week. The 65-page document includes the results of about 200 responses to a questionnaire, a series of one-on-one interviews with Linux experts and profiles of Canadian open source companies.

While acknowledging significant Linux growth in both the public and private sectors, the draft report says Canada lags global adoption rates. Partly this is due, it says, to a lack of “”basic catalysts, the most significant being a sufficient level of senior management awareness and understanding of the strategic value of open source solutions.””

Linux proponents best not come on too strong, however, according to the report. “”Evangelism is increasingly generating diminishing returns, if not negative returns,”” it says. “”The noise generated by polarized points of view often obscures the underlying value and more subtle nuances of the model.””

Not unlike their religious counterparts, the Linux community has attracted a number of high-profile IT executives who regularly comment on the benefits of open source computing. Unlike commercial software companies, the report notes, Linux as an industry lacks a significant degree of marketing collateral.

Joseph Del Molin, president of Toronto-based e-Cology Corp. and the report’s author, said his research indicated evangelism sometimes alienates senior management because it can focus on emotional issues rather than the solid business rationale for installing Linux.

“”It doesn’t need that kind of push anymore,”” he said. “”It was really important for trailblazing to have the kind of energy and determinism that evangelists have, but I think we’re quite at the point in terms of looking at the broader market where it really doesn’t help.””

Bruce Perens is among the world’s best-known Linux evangelists, having founded the Open Source Initiative, led the Debian GNU/Linux project and worked for two years at HP as its official Linux advocate. Perens insisted evangelists don’t merely encourage adoption. They also issue important warnings against software patenting that can hurt open source and SMBs that engage in software manufacturing, he said.

“”I think that that conclusion was just naive,”” he said. “”Open source is still very severely threatened by a number of legal developments, and even the farthest left of the evangelists are doing very important work on that.””

At the Children’s Services Division at the City of Toronto, which recently installed Linux on thin clients, evangelism wasn’t appropriate, said the division’s IT configuration specialist, Jody McConkey. Though some officials were concerned about support issues and security, preaching open source versus proprietary wasn’t going to appease them.

“”It turns people off,”” he said.

Instead, McConkey said a security team conducted an internal audit that showed Linux poses no more risk than any other platform, and the overall cost benefits — $40 a seat versus $400 — spoke for themselves.

“”We use taxpayer money, and we wanted to get the best bag for our buck,”” he said.

Perens said evangelism can and should include rational financial justifications for deployment.

“”I actually don’t feel that evangelism is going to hurt commercial adoption,”” he said. “”I think the commercial businesses tend not to listen the more extreme evangelists in anything that they’re interested in, not only open source.””

E-Cology is hoping to get feedback before the end of next week before it finishes up the draft report, which will be assessed by Industry Canada for future policy issues, Del Molin said.

— Illustration by Robert Carter

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