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Editor's Note: Money Changes Everything
The Linux World Will Never Be the Same
December 10, 1999
It has been an amusing sight this week to see everyone scurrying around to get their piece of the Great Linux Money Grab 1999. From Eric Raymond expressing great surprise at his sudden wealth (yeah, right) to FSF/GNU acolytes expressing dismay that RMS didn't share in the wealth (ah, but purists are supposed to walk around in hair shirts and receive genius grants) to Forbes magazine expressing great disbelief that any Linux company could generate the revenues to warrant the pricing of VA Linux Systems on its first day of release, the stock market's determination that anything remotely Linux means big bucks has certainly forever changed the Linux world. Even Andover.net, which has a rather tenuous claim to being a "Linux" company (any "Linux" company that publishes a Windows site like Slaughterhouse can't claim to be a pure Linux play), managed to share in the wealth. (Everyone except, it seems, Linus Torvalds.)
But money changes everything, and in a few years we'll see whether the rush to wealth was a good thing or a bad thing.
I can't help but think that it will be a bad thing, that the Linux world will forever be split into haves and have-nots. We will now judge all things Linux by how it affects our pocketbooks. Every time someone says something good about Red Hat Linux and bad about Slackware Linux, we'll need to judge whether the comments came as a result of intellectual honesty or from someone who gains to benefit financially from the rise of Red Hat Linux. We're now dealing with a world of public companies (Red Hat Software, Corel, Andover.net, VA Linux Systems), pre-IPO companies, and entities that don't envision ever going public (including Debian, Slackware, the FSF, and RMS).
We're already seeing this concerning Linux development on Itanium, as reported on C|Net. So far the only representatives from the greater open-source community are Red Hat Software, Caldera Systems, TurboLinux, and SuSE--the biggest commercial Linux entities. What happens to Debian, Slackware, and the Free Software Foundation when they're out of the loop in developing the next generation of Linux? Why isn't participation open to any Linux developer? Don't kid yourself: developing Linux for the next generation of Intel 64-bit processors is perhaps the most important activity in Linux right now, and to exclude virtually the entire open-source world is a very bad, bad thing. This arrangement gives vast preferential treatment to those four commercial firms, it basically screws over every other Linux distribution in the future, and it cuts down on the open nature of the competitive Linux world. This was a decision based on money, pure and simple, and our interests are not being served with this arrangement. Say goodbye to Linux as we know it.
Finally, Linux commentators who don't voluntarily disclose their financial holdings will be subject to greater scrutiny, as we don't know whether they have an ax to grind. (Full disclosure: my family's entire stock portfolio consists of Cisco and internet.com stock. Also, in the interests of full disclisure, I did discuss forming a Linux company in the past--discussions that never went past a very preliminary form.) Deals will be made on the basis of financial gain. A lot of what made the Linux world unique has been eliminated by the rush to wealth, and no longer will be there be a common goal among the hardcore Linux elite. Why should I bust my butt and spend hours and hours working on kernel development or driver development--which I would have done in the past because I believed in the future of Linux--if someone else is going to get rich, but I'm not? It would not surprise me if the vast number of Linux volunteers start drifting away--and if that happens, Linux will die.
I don't begrudge anyone their sudden wealth: going public is a valid way of raising capital for expansion, and the folks from VA and Andover.net didn't force the stock market to absurdly bid up stock prices. But in the past, much of what happened in the Linux community happened because it was the right thing to do, even if it did come after a certain level of intense debate. As of today, the stench of money will cloud a lot of what happens in the Linux community. And don't forget: the rush to profit in the past gave us MS-DOS and Windows.