Originally Published: Wednesday, 28 July 1999 Author: Andrew Leonard
Published to: columnists/Andrew Leonard Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Three Stages of Free Software Cluefulness

The August LinuxWorld Expo is just around the corner, so suddenly my mailbox is full of entreaties from convention exhibitors asking me to stop by and take a look at their revolutionary new open source product. Fair enough--I registered to attend as a member of the press, and these conferences are nothing if not organized opportunities for mass hype. I won't complain....

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The August LinuxWorld Expo is just around the corner, so suddenly my mailbox is full of entreaties from convention exhibitors asking me to stop by and take a look at their revolutionary new open source product. Fair enough--I registered to attend as a member of the press, and these conferences are nothing if not organized opportunities for mass hype. I won't complain.

Besides, the opportunity to parse this mail into categories of free software cluefulness is fun. It's been fascinating to watch over the last year as the established organisms of the software industry--the public relation firms, the big software companies, and, of course, the media--have reacted to the rise of free software/open source. They're all looking for familiar handholds to grab on to, striving to absorb this strange new thing into their established world-view.

My first category is the most boring: the companies that play it straight and generic. Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of receiving an e-mail message from Inprise, formerly Borland International. Inprise, said the message, "would love to meet with you to discuss how Inprise is answering to the demand from the developer community for Linux support."

Not the sexiest pitch to ever cross my desk, I have to confess. Messages like this are mostly useful as data points; increasingly, established software companies are perceiving a market for Linux support related to their existing products. Either that, or they're perceiving an opportunity to publicize their own products by hitching them to the Linux bandwagon. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt--there's a penguin on their home page and the Linux developer survey on the site seems reasonably sincere.

The second main type of pitch plops into what I call the "Insert Open Source Here" category. Over the last six months, there's hardly an entrepreneur in the land who hasn't figured out a way to stuff the term "open source" into his or her business plan. There's open source insurance, open source conferencing, open source e-commerce solutions, open source Web development--watching it all roll in like the tide is a little bit daunting. Too many people are dressing up failed ideas with a little open source spice and figuring that's all it will take for a zesty meal.

So excuse me for being skeptical when I see things like a pitch for an open source model for game development. My first reaction to e-mail from Time City was suspicious. How does an open source software development model track to game development? Games, it has always seemed to me, require really tight editorial control and direction. Can the free-for-all of distributed open source development produce a really good game?

But heck, the game itself sounds kind of neat--online multiplayer action spanning centuries. And it would be unfair to rule open source possibilities out of order without checking them out, wouldn't it? So, as with Inprise, I'll shelve my cynicism for the time being, and give it a good look.

The third category is the straight-out bizarre--the whatever-happened-to-the-free-software-world-I-used-to-know-and-love category. Without doubt, the most intriguing announcement I have received with respect to this LinuxWorld is a message from the Schwartz Communications public relations firm telling me that Slashdot's "Rob Malda would love to be your underground guide to the Linux counterculture."

"As the Linux World conference and expo descends on San Jose August 9-12, everyone will want to know what's going on with the OS many have pegged as a potential Microsoft killer," reads the message. "But for the uninitiated, unraveling the ins and outs of this often exclusive and cryptic community is no easy task."

No kidding. Now, it would be totally unfair for me to note that I'd written a story about Slashdot more than a year ago, not long after we'd discovered the disproportionately large number of referrals that Malda and his open source-obsessed cohorts were sending our way every time we so much as whispered the word "Linux." Schwartz PR was just picking my name off a list. But what sent me for a loop was the idea of Malda as part of a staged public relations event. I've met him at previous conferences, and he strikes me as the last person on Earth who would want to spend his time shepherding clueless members of the press around an exhibition floor. Indeed, one of the whole points of Slashdot is to provide a place where people can cut through the hype and find out what is really going on. Slashdot, when it works best, works as a debunker of marketing lies and as a call to arms against FUD and hypocrisy.

But no one can escape the maw of this industry, I guess. Malda has become one of the celebrities of open source, and if there's one thing we know for sure about contemporary culture, it is that one of its favorite things to do is to eat its own celebrities alive.

My gain, however. Malda doesn't always answer his e-mail, and sometimes he seems to think, gasp, that he's got better things to do than talk to muck-raking journalists. Well, tough luck. I've got him signed up for a "personal tour of the Linux community during the Linux World expo." Hah!

Andrew Leonard (aleonard@salon.com) is the senior technology correspondent at Salon.com. He is working on a book about free software.

Salon's free software coverage can be found here.





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