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Opinion: Who invited the pirates to the Linux party?

February 3, 2000
Web posted at: 10:14 a.m. EST (1514 GMT)

by J.S. Kelly


(IDG) -- It was almost exactly two years ago that the leaders of what is now known as the open source community -- people like Eric Raymond, Larry Augustin, and John "Maddog" Hall -- met in Palo Alto, Calif., for what they called a "strategy session." They met to discuss Netscape's then-recent Mozilla announcement, and ended up deciding to launch a marketing and lobbying effort to promote the corporate acceptance of open source software. They coined the term open source itself to differentiate themselves from the free software movement.

At that time, there was not yet any corporate investment in Linux, nor had there been any IPOs -- even Red Hat was yet to receive its first round of venture capital. But commercializing free software wasn't a new idea even then -- companies like Cygnus and Red Hat had already been doing it for years by the time of the Palo Alto strategy session. And for years, Bob Young had been using the "rising tide lifts all boats" analogy to advocate this. What was different about Palo Alto was the corporate acceptance and the marketing campaign -- which together would prove an explosive mix.

By a rather remarkable coincidence, the very people who made this decision in Palo Alto were also captains or first mates on ships which would be lifted by any rising tide in open source's waters. But that of course was not the reason they gave for the campaign they began after leaving that meeting. They described their motivation thusly on the Open Source Initiative's Webpages:

We realized that the Netscape announcement had created a precious window of time within which we might finally be able to get the corporate world to listen to what we have to teach about the superiority of an open development process.

In the beginning

The "Netscape announcement" to which they referred was, of course, the decision to make the code to the Netscape browser open source.

While it is ironic that Netscape decided to open the source code to a proprietary browser which had been based on Mosaic -- which, in turn, had been open source in the first place -- it wasn't exactly the superiority of the open development process that had motivated the Netscape decision.

At the time Marc Andreeson used the Mosaic code, which he had developed while at the University of Illinois, to float Netscape, Microsoft had no interest in the Internet. It didn't have a Web server, or a Web browser.

A few years later, Microsoft noticed that the Internet had become the Next Big Thing, and launched Internet Explorer and the browser wars to catch up.

Netscape had been first and had all of the market share. But that wasn't enough to withstand Microsoft's attack -- because Microsoft didn't play nice. Corporations rarely do.

It was the pressure from Microsoft that led Netscape to open its browser's source code, and it was the announcement to that effect from Netscape that led open source community leaders to believe they had the opportunity to teach corporate America a lesson.

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Linux out of control

The marketing and lobbying efforts which the open source leaders set into motion in order to do so were to prove wildly successful.

Open source advocates succeeded in involving large corporations like IBM and Oracle, attracting venture capital, and placing before the media sweet stories about the lone genius hacker kid from Finland, who "single-handedly wrote an operating system."

Corporations love media attention, and the media love a Cinderella story. More corporations announced support for Linux in order to get publicity, and the media took those opportunities -- and a few offered by the Justice Department's antitrust case against Microsoft -- to write the romantic Linux story over and over and over again.

The marketing campaign took on a life of its own. It was no longer under the control of those who had launched it, and it was successful beyond their wildest expectations.

It would seem that this success has brought the open source leaders everything they wished for: Microsoft is apparently on the run, everyone loves Linux, the market is enormous, and money is everywhere. All of the boats have been lifted.

These days, the mere mention of the word Linux in a news story is often enough to send stock prices soaring.

There's gold in that thar code

But this is just the kind of unchecked growth that was a magnet for criminals in the Wild West, or for scam artists in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now this growth is a magnet for opportunists -- let's call them prospectors -- in the Linux space.

This fantastic wealth has attracted people who have no loyalty to what Linux was, or to what the community was. Or to the community leaders who had set the ball rolling in the first place. Or to Netscape, or to Mozilla, or to open source as a superior development process.

But if the open source leaders haven't yet succeeded in implementing their lesson plan, then at least they have succeeded in lifting their own boats. Now they have enough money -- or will, once they can take advantage of the market they have nurtured -- to be as big as the corporations. And once that happens, they can teach those corporations that valuable lesson, right? I'm afraid not. By virtue of having grown the market so large, they have attracted more boats. Bigger boats. Even pirate ships.

They have grown the market to the point that it is attractive to corporate America -- not as an experiment or as a lesson, but as a money maker. They have grown the market to the point that it is attractive to rogue ships of the type that LinuxOne appears to be. They have grown the market to the point that shipping is no longer the issue -- the gold fever of IPOs is.

And corporate America needs no lessons where money is concerned. But the open source community apparently does.

It is as if the open source community thought that by being first and having all of the market share, it was bound to win. But that didn't work for Netscape, and I doubt it will work for very many of the open source leaders.

Like the captains of vessels headed to San Francisco harbor in the 1850s, the open source leaders will soon learn that, when there is a gold rush, the boats are only important because they get you to the goldfields. Whether it was their home port or not, the sailors in the boats heading for San Francisco during the gold rush abandoned their ships the moment they landed and made for the gold country in the hopes of striking it rich. All of those boats were floating just fine -- but without a loyal crew to man them, they rotted in the harbor.

What have we learned?

The open source lobbying and marketing initiative has created a market large enough to be interesting to corporations, and to late adopters who are as loyalty-free as the crews of the ships in San Francisco in the 1850s -- or as the employees of the corporations in the 1990s.

Why work for Red Hat, now that its IPO is over, when you can work at the next IPO? Why work at any IPO, when you can hold your own IPO?

Why bother with Linux, when you can catch hold of the next Next Big Thing? With all the pirates and big corporations in the race to take advantage of the opportunities of this Next Big Market, the open source companies are going to have a harder time than they ever imagined competing in the very arena they created.

As Jamie Zawinski wrote in the letter explaining his resignation from Netscape and Mozilla, "You can divide our industry into two kinds of people: those who want to go work for a company to make it successful, and those who want to go work for a successful company." Open source companies will now be besieged by the latter -- but will not be able to hire and keep even these prospecting workers fast enough to compete with the corporations, who don't play nice.

And so, instead of teaching the corporations about the benefits of open development, I think that open source leaders are in for a lesson themselves. They won't have beaten the corporations by having joined them. Rather, it will be the other way around.

Of course, that's just one person's opinion, I'm sure you've got your own, and I'd love to hear it -- honest!

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Open Source Initiative history pages, describing the Palo Alto strategy session
A brief history of Mosaic
A brief history of the World Wide Web
The Mozilla Project
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