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.comment: Strategic Linux - page 2

Unintended Consequences

  • September 26, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

I mentioned the hard times that have befallen the carrion beetles of the plaintiffs bar in part because it is a good thing, and we're in desperate need of good news; in part because it illustrates the unintended consequences of a reprehensible action; and in part because it cuts Linux businesses a little slack at a time when they very much need it. This is important because of the tremendous contributions that those businesses make to Linux and because it is crucial that Linux not become a de facto single source system.

As to the first point, Linux distributors have contributed a number of ease-of-use features that do not fit easily into the scratch-an-itch model of open source programming. A lot of the work done by distributions is not what the excited young programmer diving into Linux would undertake. Many people enjoy cooking, but few like to do the dishes. For this reason it is a very good thing that we have distributions producing installation and configuration utilities.

The second point is more important. I've heard it argued by very intelligent people that we might as well simply surrender to Red Hat, whereupon all issues of incompatibility, file hierarchy standards, and so on would disappear. And I have argued in response that these issues must be resolved outside any one distribution, to avoid any one distribution becoming so dominant that the others really don't matter. (It's worth noting that corporations are recognizing this as well, which is why IBM, for instance, has working relationships with multiple Linux distributors. They were the first to fall victim to the perilous nature of single source software.)

The powers that be have been making very slow progress in adopting a definition of standard Linux. To avoid pre-emption by a dominant distribution -- and by this I mean Red Hat, which produces an excellent distribution but one that must not become the only distribution -- these bodies would have to do a little less meeting and hemming and hawing and a little more producing. Here's hoping that they do just that. Standards are necessary in any operating system, and they are likely to be far better, as we've learned with Microsoft, if they're established by a standards body and not a corporation which, quite rightly, has its own interests chiefly in mind.

Linux has become sufficiently sophisticated and widely used that now is time for all of us, not just distributors but those involved in projects connected with Linux, to consider what is rapidly becoming an important concern: backward compatibility. This was underlined in a perceptive email posted yesterday to the KDE developers mailing list by Jason Stephenson.

"Don't forget that many corporations, particularly in America, are stuck in a software release mindset," he wrote. "That is, they want to use the latest stable versions from the official maintainers. They don't want to hack the libraries that they get. They just want to write the software that they need to run their business." Preservation of binary compatibility should, wherever possible, be a goal. This was not so much the case when Linux was a hobbyist operating system. There is merit now in making its adoption more attractive to the enterprise.

Indeed, the vast consortium that now makes up the Linux development and distribution community is perfectly positioned to maintain and extend the information structure throughout the world. Microsoft, though it owns the majority of desktops, is in the odd position of playing catch up, and it cannot succeed in doing so. Instead, it is releasing a new version of its operating system that fails to anticipate any of the recent unhappy events. Linux has built-in redundancy right down to its means of development and distribution. It is robust right across the board. It does not expose our computing infrastructure to the vulnerabilities that any single source system does.

Which puts us in the odd position of adding to the list of reasons for using Linux one that none of us would have expected a month ago: Because it's the patriotic thing to do.

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