Many members of the open source community exhibit the characteristics of believers in a fundamentalist religion - they cannot accept criticism of their belief object, and will, given the opportunity, pour scorn and derision on the proponents of alternatives, or even on those who simply don't believe as they do.
Yet the object of such fire and brimstone is, as Bill Gates remarked at the launch of Windows 95, only software. Many have observed that the views expounded by some open source disciples could be doing their cause a grave disservice.
Let's be clear. Helpful, rational responses abound on Linux forums, resolutions are frequently arrived at and the helpers are dutifully thanked by the questioner, and that's the spirit with which most issues are dealt with. We're talking about the minority here, those who shout the loudest and who therefore are, from the point of view of the occasional visitor, perceived as representative of Linux advocates.
From an enterprise buyer's perspective, fervent devotion and blindness to faults cloud the realities when it comes to exploiting what's probably the open source community's biggest asset: the Web and the huge number of eyeballs offering advice and fixing problems. Terms such as 'hate' litter their postings in what is supposed, after all, to be a rational debate.
So what can be gained from engaging with believers, and what can believers do to make their case more effectively? Mutual understanding of each others' points of view might help and it shouldn't involve words like hate.
As a highly successful, highly visible, fully commercial software company, Microsoft is the most obvious hate object and is frequently discussed in the most egregious terms. Yet right now, you'd still have to say that Windows, for all its faults, is the best desktop system around for most people, for reasons not worth repeating here. Even Red Hat's CEO Matthew Szulik said last November that Windows was best for home users. This won't necessarily always be the case; expect Linux users to become more positive towards the company following its recent launch of a Windows competitor.
Companies straddling the divide between commercialism -- selling software and services -- and totally GPL'ed (General Public Licence -- meaning free) also generate emotion. Unless a company can been seen to be totally free of commercial taint, runs the argument from some of the GPL's more fervent supporters, they are deviating from the principles of open source.
Novell and IBM are good examples. Another is SCO. Now the embodiment of evil for many, the company is actually doing nothing other than following its commercial dictates. Companies exist to make money: they have no other purpose. If that's where their business model leads them, buyers and supporters are free to withdraw support for their products. That said, observers believe that the end result of SCO's much-derided copyright suit could, if successful, be the stifling of innovation.
Red Hat on the block
But coming in a close second on the hate list these days is not SCO but Red Hat. For many enthusiasts, Red Hat betrayed Linux by terminating its GPL Linux product. Then it had the temerity to suggest that it wanted to be profitable and to shift enterprise customers onto its paid-for version of Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).
From a commercial perspective, it makes perfect sense. There are plenty of GPL desktop Linux distros out there - in other words, lots of competition. Red Hat decided to deliver to the enterprise market instead and, so far, seems to be coping. What it didn't do was drag the hearts and minds of many Linuxphiles with it. If the desired objective is a healthy market involving multiple Linux vendors, many would argue that a profitable Red Hat is a good thing.
The IT manager's view
Yet when buying enterprise server software, many IT managers don't care whether the software they use was developed by a bunch of monkeys, a hundred well-paid programmers, or a thousand open source hackers. The point is whether it works as it should, whether it's as close to bug-free as is reasonable to expect, and whether support for it is available as and when required.
An IT manager will though prefer to deal with companies whom they know are on a sound financial footing, since such an organisation is likely to be focused on making and supporting its products for the foreseeable future. That's because a single source for advice and technical support can reduce costs. Having several different, possibly conflicting answers to a technical problem takes more time, something they don't have. And while multiple sources of help -- the GPL model -- can be an asset, it's tough sometimes to winnow wheat from chaff. Most desirable is to have the vendor diagnose and fix the problem, with the wider discussion being further down the problem resolution path. And, for IT managers in a number of industries, discussing technical problems in open forums is impossible anyway for security reasons.
Linux is an excellent tool in a wide range of circumstances. But, like oranges, it's not the only fruit and, even though some companies sell pineapples not penguins, this doesn't make them bad people. And if IT managers buy their software, they're not bad people either. It's a pity that some advocates find it hard to accept this reality, resulting in their shrill voices obscuring the message they think they're delivering. The good news is signs exist that many owners of those voices are starting to recognise this.
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