"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 August 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Out of Eden

[Howdy Kids!, I'm Felipe!-felipe@wired.com]


That thump you heard was the

Linux community falling from

Eden. Long assured of their

superiority over the other

animals — because God told

them so — Linux coders were

offered a shiny green apple from

a serpent named Wall Street last

week, and they bit, and bit

hard. The repercussions will

fundamentally change the way the

OS is developed, works, is sold.

Linux is out in the real world

now with the rest of us, naked,

cold, and faced with covering

its privates.


Briefly, Linux is an

"alternative" — where

"alternative" is defined as "not

Microsoft" — operating

system for personal computers.

Begun as a part-time project by

Finnish college student Linus

Torvalds, it has since evolved

into the Holy Grail of the

taped-glasses set. While there

are many technical details that

make Linux attractive to the

sort of people to whom technical

details are attractive, perhaps

its most appealing aspects are

political and economic rather

than technological.


Political: Linux is "open

source" software, meaning that

nobody owns or controls the raw

programming instructions.

Anybody can goof with it. Find a

bug? Fix it and share the

solution. Do unto others.


Economic: Linux is free. Grab

yourself a copy. Grab 10. If

you're a corporation, grab

10,000. It's legal to sell

Linux, but since nobody owns the

software, there's always some

Mother Teresa type happy to

make it available without


[I'm the new suckster 'round here]


These two aspects, combined with

a powerful loathing of the Great

Satan, have long been the Linux

community's claim to divinity.

Linux isn't just better, it's

Good. People work on Linux, the

thinking goes, because they love

it. They want to share their

knowledge; they believe in

open-source software.


That would explain the line of

geeks waiting for their 30

pieces of silver. The cache of

noble motivations was

effectively emptied by the

spectacular debut of Red Hat

Software on the Nasdaq last week

and the company's

semi-successful distribution of

prepublic shares to the Linux

community. (Claiming it wanted

to repay the community for

making the IPO possible,

Red Hat handed out stock at the

$14 opening price to the major

players in the Linux pantheon:

Getting "The Letter" inviting

participation meant the

difference between sackcloth and

ashes and a lifetime supply of

fatted calves.)


Red Hat may have paid off pretty

well, but VA Linux Systems is

rumored to be preparing its own

IPO ... as are Caldera and Linuxcare.

And Dell and SGI will save license

fees by going with Linux. You

may lament the end of the Linux

contributors' pure intentions,

but shouldn't the programmers

get a dip in the money

bath like everybody else?

[SHAMELESS PLUG:I'm in a band-Systematic. You can listen to us at http://www.mailbomb.org]


But the simple fact of the

market has profound implications

for how Linux, um, evolves in

the future. The same forces that

drive the development of

commercial operating systems

— including (and especially)

Windows — will now drive the

development of Linux.


For an OS whose main appeal

so far has been empowerment

of the lumpenprogrammeriat,

that puts an end to the myth of

the noble crusade. In fact, Linux's

status as the elite's favorite rock

to throw through Windows may now

hurt more than it helps.

Red Hat 6 already allows any

philistine marketing VP with

80 bucks to install

Linux easily, but that doesn't

help him churn out his PowerPoint

presentation. The fat guy down in

MIS may love remote administration,

but he'll end up suffering with

Windows 2000 until StarOffice has

that talking paper clip his users

like so much. There's cash waiting

for the first person willing who

successfully panders to the

great unwashed.


Of course, greed isn't the first

darker motivation to rear its

head in the Linux world. Love,

charity, and faith are nice, of

course, but few of the virtuous

have ever sat down at a computer

keyboard — and vanity and pride

have long played a role in every

software project, Linux included.

The pointless double effort that

goes into such competing

projects as KDE and GNOME is

the result of there being too little

glory, and even less charity,

to go around. Richard Stallman,

older than Adam, has

championed renaming Linux

"GNU/Linux" because, damn

it, he wants his project to get

the credit he thinks it


[Mmmmmmm... Nutella!]


But money is something Linux has

never seen before, and greed is

qualitatively different than the

community's existing sins.

Fixing an obscure bug in the

driver code for a network card

may be useful, but it's not

sexy, and it's certainly not

going to get the author noticed

the next time someone's handing

out prepublic stock. It's not

going to be a bullet item in the

next InfoWorld review. It won't

create buzz or move product.


And that's what will matter

most, ultimately. "Does it

work?" will be replaced by "Does

it sell? Is it profitable? Does

it put money in my pocket?"

Actually functioning may be a

nice by-product of all this, but

from here on, it's

secondary. What's the next IPO?

When's the next payday? VA

Linux? Caldera? Linuxcare?

Crusades turn ugly when the

crusaders realize that there's

gold to be plundered.


Linux was headed down this path

already — the corporations

crowding around the pretty girl

in the fig leaf aren't

concentrating on the higher

virtues — but now that the

rank and file has joined the

stampede out of the garden, the

situation will only intensify.

Spit and polish, bells and

whistles, the superficiality

that means a little and sells a

lot will be the focus of Linux

development from now on. For all

its current tech-cred, Linux is

becoming just another product,

struggling to ship on time, turn

a profit, and please the



Nobody's innocent anymore.

courtesy of Greg Knauss

[Purchase the Suck Book here]