in Linux

RWL and maddog’s talk

Last Thursday I ducked out of work to hear maddog give a talk at the Real World Linux trade show — conveniently located across the street from my office. Given that RWL was largely a trade show for PHBs (Pointy-Haired Bosses), I was bracing myself for a PHB-oriented talk, and in many ways, it was. His subject matter was clearly intended to help win over whatever proportion of the audience not already enamoured with Linux. That’s fair, and I applaud him for that. Linux is still suffering slow adoption in large, conservative corporations — financial institutions, for example — and anyone making an effort to loosen the ties of conservative CTOs, on whatever grounds, should be applauded.

I do want to point out the hilarious juxtaposition of some of maddog’s talking points with the circumstances of the show. Let me summarize the central points of maddog’s talk:

  1. Between the 50’s and the 70’s all software development was open source — when you paid for software, you got the source code if you wanted it. (Ignore the historical inaccuracies of this generalization.)
  2. In the late 70’s and early 80’s when a company was developing (closed-source) software, they had, for example, 100 engineers, and 2500 customers. Each customer would generate on average one feature request and one bug fix per year, so per year you would have 5000 requests. No problem; each engineer would handle 50 requests a year.
  3. Once IT became a huge industry, the company in question might now have 200 engineers, but 2.5 million customers, each generating two requests a year. Therefore each engineer would be required (theoretically) to handle 250,000 requests a year, which is clearly untenable.
  4. Therefore, open-source software development is better because even if there are 2.5 million consumers, the number of developers is limitless.

Obviously this is a gross oversimplification, and I’m not trying to criticize maddog on these grounds. As I pointed out above, he’s trying to convince PHBs to use Linux, and why the quality of Linux as an OS can be better, due to more eyes looking at the code.

Maddog went on to talk about how large commercial organizations are unresponsive to customers’ concerns due to this very reason (scope/feature creep), and also used this to justify OSS development as better. Okay, that’s probably a reasonable statement too.

While I was sitting there and listening to maddog outline these truisms about how OSS software development and community support, etc. is better than that of commercial software development and commercial support, not ten feet away we had an entire trade show floor of exactly the same closed-source-type, commercial organizations, pitching their products the same as they would be pitching them at COMDEX or CeBIT! The only difference is that, perhaps, some of the products were built on OSS technology, or they ran on Linux. Nevertheless, when I go up to ACCPAC’s booth at RWL and talk to the sales drone, how is this any different than when I go up to ACCPAC’s booth at COMDEX and talk to the same drone? There’s no difference; ACCPAC is still the same, massive, monolithic commercial company with the same problems regarding creeping featurism that maddog outlined in his talk!

The fundamental problem I now have with Linux is that rather than companies developing software the way OSS developers would develop software (which, if you believe maddog, would be the better way), those same companies are just taking Linux (as they have every right to do, mind you), inserting it into their own corporate framework, and selling it just like any other product that they would sell. It doesn’t matter whether they contribute the code back to the community; the development model is still all wrong. To see this in action, I point you to Novell.

Novell made their money selling a proprietary server operating system called Netware, and now makes some money selling copies of SuSE Linux, Red Carpet, Evolution, and so on. Problem is, they’re selling these things like they used to sell Netware. They haven’t realized there’s a paradigm shift here: all the benefits of OSS development that maddog pointed out in his talk aren’t worth a damn if they have to be funnelled through a vendor who’s just as inflexible (in terms of support) with their distribution of Linux as they are with their own, proprietary, closed-source software!

RedHat is another example of this: in order to meet the demands of their customers, they heavily bastardize the stock Linux kernel with their own patches, written by their own developers. But there’s nothing to say that these patches have to be incorporated back into the kernel: that’s up to Linus’ personal discretion. Eventually RedHat winds up with The RedHat Linux Kernel which is significantly different than the stock kernel, and voilà you lose the benefits of having the greater OSS community available to help you with all those feature requests and bug fixes. We’re back again to the situation where only the vendor’s 200 engineers understand the end product, and the support sucks again because those 200 engineers can’t handle the five million support requests.

Explain to me how this is different than non-OSS, commercial software?

In conclusion, what I find most perverse about RWL and the state of Linux in general is that rather than it changing the paradigm of the way software development is done in the world, it is, in fact, being subsumed into the closed-source software development paradigm. To put it another way: rather than leading formerly closed-source companies to open their source in order to reap the
benefits of limitless development manpower, Linux is now, by virtue of the vendors, being closed down.

I should note that this closing-down isn’t absolute, and it won’t ever be, so long as we have independent distributions like Debian. But I was still surprised to see maddog get up on stage and trumpet the virtues of the OSS development model, when those benefits are being circumvented by many of the vendors before his very eyes.