by July 6, 2001 0 comments

We are not ready. And it scares me. We’re meddling with major
forces, armed with some hopes and dreams, and we think it’s enough.

No one can deny the astonishing jump in attention that Linux and
OpenSource have made. It’s incredible, and all due to the hard work and diligence of
some very cool individuals. But I’m here to doomsay, though it’s not my nature,
because I think it’s vital that some important thoughts get thunk.

First, Microsoft is irrelevant. Totally. Ignore the man behind the
curtain. Gates is just a ring-wraith to the Sauron of unethical capitalism. We run the
real risk that by concentrating too hard on killing Windows, we’ll become just like
them. People are calling for “feature parity” with the Office (TM, Pat
applications to ease the transition of newbie users, without once questioning whether
that’s a good thing.

Personally, I like the idea of giving all those potential new users
a nasty shock to the complacency. (Which is just above the navel, next to the spleen.) I
don’t want Linux to be “Just like Windows only Better!”, I want it to
challenge the basic assumptions that Microsoft engineers have made. Windows is a poor copy
of the Macintosh is a poor copy of the Xerox Star, now 20 years old. We haven’t
challenged the basic WIMP (windows, icons, mouse, pointer) paradigm in 20 years? Come on!

And have you ever considered what might happen if the stated Linux
goal of “Total world domination” is actually achieved? And are you really
prepared to accept the consequences?

I don’t think you are.

Consider: Red Hat used to release a new version every few months.
That has now slipped. The reason is rather involved, but essentially the reseller channel
doesn’t like version releases too often. Even once a year is too frequent, in
reseller land. Two kernel updates a day wouldn’t be believed.

To get Linux onto everyone’s desktop, the release frequency
will have to drop down to that kind of time scale. Even if we perfect the Debian
auto-update, people won’t use it, even if we get the bandwidth. They don’t like
their software changing unpredictably from day to day. The hacker/early-adopter/mainstream
model acts like a filter to keep bad or incomplete software off computers. (And consider
carefully the possibility of a single buggy kernel module, sent out through the
auto-update chain, taking down the Net.)

First, accept that the commercialization of OpenSource products is
inevitable and necessary. Some people only attach value to things they have to pay for.
This is the businessman’s mindset. He believes in money, with a capital M. It defines
him, and his relationship with the world is interpreted in terms of the flow of cash. This
is the work of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, which has long been wedged up Adam
Smith’s Invisible Butt.

And as far as commercial Linux vendors go, there Can Be Only One.

Microsoft has a monopoly. they just happened to be the one ruthless
enough to get it for the moment. If Linux “wins”, then it will become the
monopoly OS. And it will be a plodding Red Hat once-a-year release. Is that what you
wanted? Because sooner or later, Red Hat, the company, will be owned and run
by an economic rationalist with a legal obligation to increase shareholder value (as all
publicly traded companies are required to do, or they get sued) using any and every means
at their disposal. It happened to Netscape. Ask Jamie. Linux, in the wrong hands, is a big
gun, which someone will use to shoot Microsoft, probably in order to replace them. That is
simply what will happen. If Microsoft is clever, then they’ll buy that gun to shoot
themselves in the foot, rather than wait for someone else to aim it at their head.
That’s the consequence of Total World Domination. This is called “Commercial
Reality”, and the only way to win is not to play the game.

Don’t let the fact that 90 percent of the population wants to
be spoon-fed their software, distress you. People are weird. Accept it. Just remember that
while a thriving OpenSource community exists, the other 10 percent can get what they need.
And if you care, then you’re in that group. And the way to live is to do it on your
own terms. Great works can be done outside the corporate environment. We’ve proved
that. We don’t need them anymore. Independence is the key.

Along the way, there are many traps. First, though copyright and
patent laws are flawed, it’s still the law. Be very, very sure that the code you put
into an OpenSource program infringes no patents or copyrights, even though you disagree
with the concepts. Don’t use LZW compression, don’t call your program
“Excel”, and don’t share code between your day job and your project unless
you’ve got a piece of paper to counteract the other piece of paper they usually make
you sign. If it becomes a crucial part of the system and suddenly gets yanked because of a
legal dispute, that’s a very bad thing for the project, for whoever gets the blame,
for all the people down the track who may have used your code in something else, and for
the image of OpenSource. Maybe we need a “100 percent pure OpenSource” campaign
or something, I don’t know.

The second trap is commercial interests. Look at Silicon Valley.
It’s a case in point of what to avoid. The defining characteristic of the Executive
Suit is the search for power. They look for the biggest game in town and muscle in at the
top using the forceful application of money and the law. Can you say “Venture
Capital”? I knew you could. As soon as you turn a technology into a company, or a
patent, or something that can be owned, then it will be bought up by the kinds of bottom
feeders who like to own things, because they’re very, very good at it.

OpenSource has got the attention of the world, now. And that means a
million Suits are looking at Linux and asking “How can I use this”. And they
don’t mean “How can I use this to make things cool and froody” but
“How can I use this to increase my grip on power and crush my enemies like the bugs
they are!” and then they laugh maniacally and stroke their fluffy white cats while
pushing evil buttons.

Well…maybe I’m being a little melodramatic, but you get the
idea. Effective executives are users who treat every thing and person as a
“resource”. And some of them do have cats.

There’s a saving grace, if you choose to believe it: Linux is a
byproduct. A created artifact. The important thing is the community which created it. If
every copy of Linux (source and binaries) could be magically removed from everyone’s
hard drive, (possibly the result of some evil Microsoft virus delivered by nuke-detonation
EMP pulse and Tantric chant) we’d scream blue murder, and then re-write the whole
thing in two years. Some would even count it a blessing, like the Great Fire of London,
and how it made possible some proper town planning for once. So, let them “own” Linux, if we must. Let them gloat over
the binaries, like some rare and sparkly gem. Just don’t tell them that we can make
another anytime we wish. Because then they might be tempted to try to own the community,
and the process. And that would be awful.

But the worst trap of all would be for the OpenSource community to
deny what makes it so powerful: a global collection of individualistic, ornery, talented,
and opinionated people who make things happen, knit together by a new communications
medium that we built ourselves, which somehow keeps us moving in the same unified

We have dangerously re-focused from being a hacker collective to
taking aim at a product. The first can be described as an open-ended search for self. The
second is a closed contest with a single winner, and then Game Over. Then what?

Sun Tzu said “Know yourself and know your enemy, and you will
come through a thousand battles without harm”. We know the enemy well enough…but.

Saruman looked too deep into the palantir. His wisdom gave way to
the need for power, and in grappling with the Enemy on his terms, he became like him. His
mind was warped by what he saw. Insengard was remade into a poor imitation of Minas
Morgul. The Two towers. One a sad copy of the other. Both failed in the end.

Addendum: Writing for an online forum can be interesting.
Within hours of the article being posted to,
upwards of 180 people had posted public (sometime lengthy, but usually thoughtful)
replies, and several sent me direct mail. One ex-Microsoft product manager mailed about
his experiences trying to push OpenSource while still there. One person asked for help
installing Linux. (And got it.) The majority of replies were positive, speaking of a
general feeling that yes, perhaps things had gone a little too far. Writing for an online forum can be interesting.
Within hours of the article being posted to,
upwards of 180 people had posted public (sometime lengthy, but usually thoughtful)
replies, and several sent me direct mail. One ex-Microsoft product manager mailed about
his experiences trying to push OpenSource while still there. One person asked for help
installing Linux. (And got it.) The majority of replies were positive, speaking of a
general feeling that yes, perhaps things had gone a little too far.

Another general thread was “the GPL will protect us”.
I’m not so sure. It’s just a document. The real protection comes from the daily
efforts of all in the community. I hold a deep belief that things will work out for the
best when driven by people of good faith and good intentions.

Last, my mention of Red Hat in a possible worst-case scenario means
nothing. Red Hat have performed a sterling service for the community. They’re simply
the most visible example of exposure to the commercial world. I wish them the best of luck
in walking their fine line. Special kudos to the guys in the Red Hat labs.

Jeremy Lee is a programmer/analyst living in Australia. He is currently designing a new user interface which will totally revolutionize computing as we know it. He does not have a cat. This article was originally posted at Reprinted with the author’s permission

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