Linux is... an open-source OS

You know, there's something else in that Slashdot debate that's far more important. The poster who started the "My take" thread splashed through the surface of a couple of issues, but by doing so actually muddied the waters even more than the threads I talked about earlier.

The critical quote in that post is this: "most \*\*experts\*\* view Linux as the most serious threat to Microsoft". It's hard to argue with an assertion like that because it's hard to identify who can be considered an expert, and even harder to get them all to vote on it. But some of those "\*\*experts\*\*" are a little more controversial than most. I guess "\*\*experts\*\*" must include Steve Ballmer, who has made exactly that comment.

How often do Linux supporters find themselves agreeing with a Microsoft exec? I think that's pretty smart of Ballmer to say that - it makes Linux supporters feel good (which costs nothing), and it doesn't make one blind bit of difference to Microsoft's business. Why? Because at the same time MS aggressively promotes their offerings very clearly as having lower TCO than Linux with their "Get the facts" marketing program.

Ok - so why would Ballmer say one thing in public while at the same time MS marketing say the opposite? Here's my view: misdirection (the act of distracting; drawing someone's attention away from something; the essential art of a stage magician). If paying customers view their decision as a simple 2-way decision (Windows or Linux), MS is saying that Windows comes out in front due to lower TCO, so in effect they are saying Linux is not such a threat after all. A little odd you might think.

Don't get me wrong - I believe that classifying Linux as the biggest threat to Microsoft is not entirely misdirection - but it is a huge over-simplification:

  1. Linux is essentially the kernel - it would be a neat computer science project without the entire GNU.org stack (thank you Linus T. and Richard S. respectively, and a lot of talented hackers in academia and enlightened companies everywhere). Linux-based web-servers tend (with good reason) to run the (L)AMP suite (Apache, MySQL and PHP). But GNU and AMP software run on just about any UNIX, including \*BSD and Solaris (soon to be open-source) and MacOS. And guess what - most of GNU and AMP runs on Win32 too. And what about Perl, Python, Postgres, TAO and the uncountable pantheon of open-source deities? All of that competes with Microsoft's offerings, even on their OS. And that's just for starters.

  2. GNOME and KDE - these two open-source desktops compete not just with Windows but with each other; while I wish they had more base technology and standards in common, they are both superb meta-projects, and with X.org they both offer a compelling GUI environment to run applications - on Linux, \*BSD and Solaris (yes you can even do GNOME on MacOS too, but that's not why you have a Mac, right?)

  3. Mozilla.org - the open-source browser and portable communications suite. Firefox is starting to win users away from IE. Because of bigots or rants? No, because Firefox is lighter, faster, more secure and has some very desirable features that are missing in IE. We can expect similar great things from Thunderbird, and maybe Sunbird too. If Firefox wins significant market share, then server products can't get away with just targetting the IE browser, which means they also target non-Windows desktop environments. It's all about choice.

  4. OpenOfffice.org - the open-source office suite. If a Linux-based desktop environment did not have a full-featured MS-interoperable office productivity suite, it would not be a viable option for a large percentage of users. OOo (and OOo-derived suites such as StarOffice) is already winning significant business from Microsoft Office. That's real competition. And OpenOffice.org has defined an open standard for rich documents so that office productivity suites can be interoperable and your documents remain readable for not just 5 years but maybe 50 (nice if that's your will you're writing, or your journal).

  5. Finally, Java is not itself open-source, but Java has enabled 10's of 1000's of open-source projects (just a rough estimate, but if you look at http://java-source.net/ and http://jakarta.apache.org/ and http://www.jboss.org/products/list#projects and http://sourceforge.net/softwaremap/trove_list.php?form_cat=198 and http://freshmeat.net/browse/198/ and http://dev.java.net you can begin to get a sense of the scale). Those open-source Java projects run on a broader variety of operating systems, servers, desktops and phones than any other kind of software. More choice.

So there's a clear message here - the open-source movement has created an astonishingly broad array of quality software, spanning servers to desktops - and it runs on Linux, \*BSD, MacOS, Solaris ... and Windows. Do you think maybe Ballmer doesn't know that? Very unlikely.

That's why in my view, Microsoft are actually concerned not just about Linux, but in the widest sense the platforms that favour open-source (including \*BSD, MacOS, Solaris and Java). Why? Because when you cut away a lot of the bullshit, open-source is the ultimate gene pool that allows DNA from compatible software projects (with compatible licenses) to combine to make even better products. And the combination of those platforms provides a uniquely broad choice of hardware for that software to run on.

So given that huge advantage of parallelised evolution and multiple platforms, won't the open-source model win? In theory yes, but there is one problem. We don't want to wait 10,000 years before all this open-source incrementally splits and merges to evolve into the perfect software solution. We want it (need it!) now.

So what do we need to do? Here's my view on this. 1) Encourage companies to explore and adopt the open-source model more. 2) Respect choice and diversity. 3) However, too much choice is bad because it means projects don't achieve critical mass; for example, in my view we have maybe 2 or 3 times as many Open Source Workflow Engines in Java as we need (currently there are 19); if some of those merged, they would get there faster; future perfect is the enemy of the present good; 4) The ultimate fate of the open-source software model lies in the scales of justice, unless a) we can resolve the threat of IP which is not always granted to users of open-source components and b) we can identify some mutually compatible combinations of a smaller number of open-source licenses that create the largest possible gene pool of code (take a read of this or that book to see some of the legal complexity here).

I at least look forward to the day when you and I will be able to have yet another choice of open-source operating system: Solaris. I wish it had happened as soon as first expected, but big changes take time. I have no doubt the folks at Sun working on open-sourcing it will make it happen - and it will be worth waiting for.

That was more than enough said for one post; thanks for getting this far, I hope you agree with at least some of what you read here. And if not, tell me why!

Comments:

[Trackback] Colm Smyth's Weblog: Linux is... an open-source OS is well written. I think that it does miss one thing and that is

Posted by 42 on November 16, 2004 at 11:31 AM PST #

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