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The Closing of the Bazaar

Paying the Price of Success

  • September 8, 2003
  • By Brian Proffitt

Open source has been eloquently described as a bazaar, where no one member of the bazaar can gain dominance over the others. But what happens when one merchant effectively closes all but one entrance for the bazaar's customers, and then sets itself astride the one remaining gateway to the market?

One of the most positive aspects of Linux has been the structure of the kernel, which is in turn surrounded by various other applications in nice, neat little packages we call distributions. Distributions, commercial or otherwise, vary from each other, as different groups and companies put their own special touches on what they think Linux should be.

The problem is that some distributions have become so popular, they have essentially become the very embodiment of Linux. And this may lead to some trouble down the road.

What brought this topic up was an extended conversation with Ian Murdock, the Chief Strategist of Progeny--a conversation that started when we bumped into each other on the show floor at LinuxWorld last month and continued a couple weeks later at a semi-formal catch-up session here in Indianapolis.

Murdock has a clear and unabashed goal for his company, one that challenges the distribution model of Linux. Murdock first mentioned these concerns to me in an interview published last October.

Distribution companies play a very important role in making Linux as popular and as accessible as it is today. By acting as a middle layer between the broad and diverse Open Source community and the corporate customers, distro companies have acted as an important translator and buffer between the market-driven corporations and the freedom-driven Free and Open Source development community.

But, Murdock emphasizes, distributions are not the only way Linux can be presented to the corporations. In fact, Murdock believes that there are indications out there that the distribution companies could be getting too popular for Linux's good.

In October, the industry was more than a little wary of media asking around about any concerns they had with Linux or Linux companies. After the two 2003 LinuxWorld Expos on both coasts, that trepidation is rapidly decreasing.

The company that customers and partners are most identifying as a sore spot is not Microsoft, nor Sun. It's Red Hat.

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