Originally Published: Wednesday, 27 September 2000 Author: Tom Dominico, Jr.
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Have We Come to a Fork in the Road?

Ahh, the community. It is the community that separates us from the rest of those "unholy" operating systems out there. The community represents cooperation - a single force, pulling in unison for a common goal. That goal is the success of Linux, and free software in general. So why are we pulling in different directions? The "fork" that we ought to be worried about has nothing to do with the kernel, but rather the community.

Ahh, the community. It is the community that separates us from the rest of those "unholy" operating systems out there. The community represents cooperation - a single force, pulling in unison for a common goal. That goal is the success of Linux, and free software in general. So why are we pulling in different directions? The "fork" that we ought to be worried about has nothing to do with the kernel, but rather the community.

The success of Linux and free software seems to have come with a few side effects. As the popularity of Linux has increased, the media has taken increased notice of the major "soldiers" of the revolution, if you will. With success, though, the stakes have grown higher, and factions have developed. The ugly specter of politics has raised its head, and it's time we addressed this growing concern.

As evidence, I point to some of the struggles that have become increasingly visible. Sometimes, I think I've got ringside seats at some sort of boxing event. "On tonight's ticket, we've got the welterweight battle that you've all been waiting for... Wearing the shorts emblazoned with a tiny foot, it's Gnome! And in the other "korner", it's KDE! Following that match, it's the heavyweight fight of the decade - Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, versus, well, just about everyone!" In the background, the theme music begins to blare deafeningly from the speakers... "It's the...eye of the tiger, it's the G-P-L...."

OK, perhaps that's a bit far fetched. However, is it that removed from the truth? At their core, they each have noble intentions - making free software better. Gnome and KDE want to create a better desktop, and they're both succeeding. The Free Software Foundation wants to promote the use of truly free software (no, don't call it open source, RMS doesn't like that). And there is the problem. We have people who espouse very noble causes doing not-so-noble things, such as carry out fights in public, argue over semantics, quibble over supposed licensing incompatibilities, etc.

These are just the highly visible examples, though. The desire to flame one another seems deeply rooted in the soul of the community, which is odd for a group of people who are supposedly dedicated to choice. We have a long history of flamefests - E vs. Sawfish, vi vs. Emacs, QPL vs. GPL, non-free software vs. free software... There's certainly no doubt that we are an opinionated group of people. Think of all the energy we spend arguing, though. Isn't it counter-productive? For that matter, who's to say that any of us are "right"?

The simple fact is that Linux and free software are all about choice, yet we forget this when we wage these flamewars. We negate the very concepts at the center of our revolution. You simply can't say, "Linux is about choice, as long as you choose what I think it right". That's called hypocrisy. While we are certainly all entitled to our opinions, we need to practice respect for those whose opinions differ from ours - even when it comes to proprietary software, and licensing issues. Remember the great PC vs. Mac wars (which still rage on, with the imminent arrival of OSX)? Where did they get us? Nowhere. Was anyone swayed from one side to the other? I doubt it.

Linux is about diversity. Linux is about alternatives. Linux is about respect. Linux is not about Gnome, or KDE, or the Free Software Foundation, or what window manager you run. It is larger than that, and it's time acted like it. The only danger of forking is within the community itself. Factions will sink us faster than anything else.

I'm not worried about the kernel forking, or incompatibility between distributions. It's highly unlikely that any of those things will happen. However, rifts within the community are already starting to rear their ugly heads. The phrase, "Can't we all just get along?", comes to mind. We are all supposed to be here for a common goal. By fighting and politicking, we undermine our own efforts. We work against the very goal we have pursued for so long. So shake hands, kiss, and make up, before we become responsible for the death of our own movement.