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'Linux: Politics or Technology?' - A Linux Lover's Labor Day Cri de Coeur.

'Linux: Politics or Technology?' - A Linux Lover's Labor Day Cri de Coeur.

It's been suggested to me recently that, today, Linux is all about politics, not technology.
My first instinct was to deny it. Linux is all about the technology! But I just have to look through any Linux forum to know that it's not. SCO, GNU, governments, megacorps, movements, distributions, projects, licenses ... Linux is no longer simply about building the best operating system and tools possible for the sheer joy of it. Our little operating system has grown up and somehow I missed its coming out party.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't fight the good fight. But between circling the wagons against outer forces and fighting within the various inner factions, it's far too easy to lose focus. Yes, Linux is a movement. Open source is a movement. Let's just not forget that Linux is born of one part experimentation, one part innovation, and a whole lot
of fascination with making a technology the very best that it can be.

The genesis of Linux, itself, was in fact more of an innovation in working style than technology. Returning to the collaborative efforts of the early computing age, Linus Torvalds and the ragtag band of people who flocked to his project made good use of the young Internet before most people knew what it was.

Just as the early goal was to build a free, Unix-like operating system—not something completely brand new—many other aspects of Linux and open source development have also patterned themselves after existing toolsets. The GNU project, for example, with its clones and improvements on many standard Unix tools, to the point that some of the
GNU versions have worked their way back into the Unix world to replace their predecessors.

But Unix is just a base. In the name of  "winning" some imagined war with various marketplace forces, the focus for many has now become another stage of cloning. Now should be a time of true innovation. We have a stable operating system to work from, one that's growing and improving day after day. Yet many current projects are focused on a constant game of catch-up, trying to prove that Linux can offer people everything that Those Other People can.

But are we offering the best solutions possible? Or are we settling for good enough in order to satisfy our critics and egos? When the politics become more important than the work, we'll have lost the heart and soul of what makes Linux great: a community that settles for nothing less than the best.

More Stories By Dee-Ann LeBlanc

Dee-Ann LeBlanc has been involved with Linux since 1994. She is the author of 12 books, 130 articles, and has more of both coming. She is a trainer, a course developer - including the official Red Hat online courseware at DigitalThink - a founding member of the AnswerSquad, and a consultant.

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Most Recent Comments
Benjamin Geer 09/03/03 04:30:51 AM EDT

"A community that settles for nothing less than the best" -- I agree that this should be our goal. We should settle for nothing less than building a society whose guiding principles are the cooperation and openness that characterize Free Software development. The pursuit of "the best" is inherently political.

JonB 09/01/03 11:15:48 PM EDT

Linux, FSF and Open Source have always been about politics. But the politics has centred around the code and the quality of the code, and to a lesser extent the philosophy of sharing the code. These are active technocracies and the currency is the code. At the risk of opening old wounds, I use as examples the acrimonious gcc-egcs development split and the heated discussions on Apache-SSL and mod_ssl. More recently, you might discuss the JBoss - Core Developers Network - Apache Geronimo fallout as being a political battle based on the concept of developing the best Open Source J2EE container.

These are healthy for technical innovation but are nonetheless political in nature. It comes down to an argument between groups as to who has the best technical approach, the best architectural design and the best implementation.

The nice thing is that this process of product development is not restrained or clouded by monetary considerations. Software is from the mind so anyone with the mental acuity can be a software developer. Unlike commercial software development, there are no constraints on monetary resources in an open and collaborative development model. People supply their minds and their spare time at no cost. There are no commercial pressures that require cutting corners on the development cycle. And from a user's perspective, you are not limited in your choice by the cost of a product. You can choose the product that best suits your needs. This is natural selection of the best product, not the best product you can afford.

Perhaps some of the product development is a catch-up activity to commercial offerings. But that is also a natural outcome. We become used to having certain commodities in our computing environments. So for Linux to continue attracting users and to continue to accomodate the current users, there will be some effort to offer alternatives to functionalities we have enjoyed elsewhere. And there will be innovations in these developments. Unlike users who cannot develop programs and complain about working with software, open source developers can change software functionality when they find the use of a feature too cumbersome. And software can always be rewritten from scratch using the lessons learned. The only penalty is the development time. The important outcome is that users will benefit.

Innovation in new fields will come but innovation is spurred by a sound and global knowledge base, and parallel exploration of the same space. The only threat to open competition and natural selection based on best technical implementation is any attempt to impose monetary-driven policy on innovation. When you legislate to protect innovation, you benefit those who can afford to pay for that protection and those who can defend against the charges. You do not favour the best implementation and you do not favour open technical competition. For who is to say that independent thinkers can not have the same idea or concept? Examples from history have shown this to be the case.

The only marketplace forces that open source developers have to fear are those that would introduce monetary constraints on thinking and software development. Other than this, I would argue that politics will always occur in the domain of human interaction.

Steven Brown 09/01/03 07:25:57 PM EDT

Writing Open Source code has always been inherently political. There's also always been meta-politics around the code, advocacy for example. While we're seeing new types of meta-politics like having to defend against thieves and lobby governments, it doesn't represent some kind of shift away from coding. Some people are more interested in working on the meta-politics than coding and they are needed just as much as coders. As long as there is a suitable balance between the two, while I believe there is, everything is good.

The balance that /is/ missing is in other disiplines. There are far too few artists, designers, musicians, social scientists, etc.. An emphasis should be put on figuring out how to attract types of contributors that have traditionally been scarce, and how to let them contribute without having to deal with coding.