Originally Published: Monday, 6 December 1999 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Inflection Path

The stock market has now purified the minds of many Linux skeptics. Linux is now legit. Unfortunately for us, the wrong legitimacy is dangerous. Much of the legitimacy we've gained in the eyes of the public is not purely based on merit, but on money....

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The stock market has now purified the minds of many Linux skeptics. Linux is now legit. Unfortunately for us, the wrong legitimacy is dangerous. Much of the legitimacy we've gained in the eyes of the public is not purely based on merit, but on money.

The average person on the street couldn't tell you exactly what Linux is supposed to be, but they'd proceed to tell you how Red Hat's stock is doing. Usually with a lament something along the lines of, "I wish I had gotten in earlier."

Now is the time to educate everyone on exactly what we are about. Use the frenzy on Wall Street to our best advantage. The community has a golden opportunity to exploit the public's current curiosities. When one of your non-Linux friends or relatives relates to you a story they heard on the news about a sky-rocketing Linux stock, give them the deeper truth hidden behind, rather than hype.

Pique their interest with the story of Linus Torvalds. They most likely know who Bill Gates is, and will immediately relate Linus to Mr. Gates. Most of us would start to foam at the mouth at such a comparison, but the public loves the story of Bill Gates and they will learn to love the story of Linus as well. Americans in particular really relish the plight of the underdog. Throw in a personal anecdote about the Blue Screen of Death and Linux's famed stability. Don't exaggerate or FUD the legacy Windows systems, but simply relate your personal experience.

Now the most difficult part of the tale is trying to explain what Free Software is without getting too technical. You can tell when you are losing them when their eyes gloss over when you explain that anyone can download Linux over the Net and even resell it legally. At this point, they will usually interject something like, "If Linux is free, how can Red Hat make any money?"

Patiently explain Red Hat's business model and also be sure to mention Linuxcare, O'Reilly Publishing, and other companies. More importantly, explain that the most important part of "free" is not free beer but free speech. The world at large must understand that even if Red Hat went out of business tomorrow, the Linux community would continue without them. It is a dangerous thing to tie the public's image of Linux success to one company. I'd rather not hear everyone telling me how Linux is failing every time the stock price dips a bit.

We, the Linux community, also must begin to educate the new members of the community about software freedom. To me, this is the most difficult challenge facing Linux today. We've already got a handle on the technical and monetary problems. Now we have to re-engineer our once-small community to scale to one of many tens of millions. It is also time to start bridging the digital gap separating the *BSD community and Linux camp. In my short sojourn into the BSD community, I've been able to glimpse how much we have to offer each other.

I also heartily applaud efforts such as the Debian FreeBSD distribution. With more projects like this, ideas from the BSD camp and the Linux community will begin to flow more freely. Perhaps there will always be a philosophical/political divide between us, but at least we can start making progress on working together on technical matters.

Ultimately, the legacy of Linux will not be a kernel but ideas on how to scale virtual communities and exchange ideas and information freely. The work we are doing now will be used as a model for countless more projects in the future. We absolutely must get it right this time. There may not be another chance.

Matt Michie is a Linux Guru wannabe and student living in New Mexico. He loves to get e-mail at mmichie@linux.com and maintains a web site at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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