Originally Published: Sunday, 26 March 2000 Author: Olaf Beckman
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The End Of Linux and Open Source?

I've lately been wondering if the success of Linux can collapse due to some unforeseen events. The success of Linux and other Open Source programs has been made possible by a licensing scheme called the GPL, or GNU General Public License. My argument is that it could also be its downfall.

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For more than a year now, I've been amazed at the swift intrusion of Linux onto the worldwide computing stage. Mind you, Linux was created almost a decade ago, but until several years ago, hardly anyone had heard of it. Even Unix diehards scoffed at Linux as being a mere distillate of so-called "full-size" Unices. But now, it seems everything involving Linux has become red-hot, with companies without any revenue, profit or even qualified personnel trying to raise millions through an IPO. These companies often have no more in common with Linux than the name.

So far, the success of Linux seems unstoppable, with stock prices of some Linux-related companies increasing ten-fold within days. However, recently we've seen some indications that investors are becoming more cautious with Linux as shown by the steady decline of stock prices of companies like Red Hat and VA Linux Systems. It seems that investors have finally figured out what I knew all along: companies like Red Hat and VA cannot possibly become the "Next Microsoft" simply because the business model they're based upon doesn't allow for it.

Let me clarify this. The GPL makes sure that no company can become dominant in the Linux arena. If Red Hat charges too much for its distribution, we'll simply switch to another -- or make our own if need be. I can buy a Red Hat CD at most major Linux sites for about two bucks (binaries only and shipping and handling not included). What's more, I can copy the CD a thousand times over and distribute it throughout the company I work for, or even sell it. You needn't be a rocket scientist to figure out that Red Hat can never attain the same amount of revenue or profit as Microsoft.

It seems to me however, that people naturally tend to seek a "leader." Red Hat has been appointed to the position by market analysts who only report in terms of market share and brand recognition. And now they're telling us that they want to make money by selling "services," which requires huge numbers of skilled personnel, who are in short supply. It seems to me that this is never going to work, at least not in the short term. Come to think of it, I don't think it's going to work in the long term either.

You see, computer software is one of the most profitable businesses there is if you have a dominant position like Microsoft's. Why? Because the production costs are virtually zero and the ramp-up costs to production are low. The development costs are very high, though, so you have to be sure that the product you are developing appeals to a wide audience. Operating systems and office suites come to mind.

Alas, this is a portion of the software market that Microsoft has cornered. To do the same thing on the Linux platform one must become the dominant supplier of the OS on the platform whilst eradicating all competition. Surely after the enormous amount of money invested into them, investors will want something back. Preferably a piece of the Next Microsoft.

I've lately been wondering if the success of Linux can collapse due to some unforeseen events. The success of Linux and other Open Source programs has been made possible by a licensing scheme called the GPL, or GNU General Public License. My argument is that it could also be its downfall. Here is my forecast of possible events, which could cripple and eventually destroy both Open Source and Linux.

Making the GPL Obsolete

Several weeks ago, I read an article on the Web about the release of TurboLinux's new Enterprise Linux version, which had, among other things, built-in support for clustering. Supposedly, TurboLinux modified the kernel of Linux to accomplish this since they also released the source code of their modifications. One thing that caught my eye though, was the fact that they imposed a two-month delay on releasing the source code to the general public and hence their competitors.

Now, to most people this may not seem like much, but technically, this action alone could destroy the Open Source movement. For example, if this were allowed this would let any Linux vendor make changes to the Linux kernel (or any other Open Source program) and specify some arbitrary amount of time before the changes are released. Two months, six months, a year, two years, a hundred years! This would set a very serious precedent and would eventually destroy the credibility of the GPL if it weren't fought against in court.

Which brings about the second question. Who is going to take whom to court if the GPL isn't followed to the letter? Is it Linus Torvalds against TurboLinux, GNU vs. TurboLinux, Richard Stallman vs. TurboLinux? So far, I haven't seen any response from anyone regarding this stunt.

Liability of Open Source Software

Another case where Open Source could suffer a fatal blow is the fact that someone could argue in court against the liability of Open Source software. In the United States, a manufacturer of a product ultimately assumes liability for the product that it sells. But in the case of GPL'ed software, no one can be held accountable for the case in which the use of the software results in the loss of life or damage to property or goods. A court might well decide that the use of Open Source software is illegal in the U.S. since no one can be held accountable.

One could argue that the Linux distributor is accountable but this would only lead to the bankruptcy of this distributor since not enough revenue can be obtained to cover the cost of damages or liability insurance. Anyhow, the Linux distributor would argue that they cannot be held accountable either since they didn't write the software, and they didn't manufacture it.

Imposing Copyrights on Parts of Linux Distributions

One of my favorite thought experiments involves conjuring up schemes of making money out of Linux distributions. If you're going to become as rich as Microsoft you just have to sell the damn Linux CDs for a price that's "right," right? One way of doing this would be to copyright only a very small amount of software on the CD (say an installation program or part thereof). Then you add a disclaimer prohibiting the copying of the installation program and thereby the entire CD. A new CD needs to be purchased for each installed version of the distribution.

This would actually have multiple consequences. First, you would likely become the pariah of the Linux world. Secondly, and more importantly, you would become the darling of the stock market since at last here's a Linux distributor that's going to make some serious money selling Linux. If you're smart, you wouldn't increase the price too much (say $20), just enough to make sure you could offer adequate support (which people would now expect). I'm sure this would make you king of the Linux distribution market in no time (in terms of revenue anyhow).

The effect on the Linux and Open Source movement would be disastrous since the entire line between Open Source and Proprietary Source market would start to blur. Also, most people would decide that we're back to square one, having created another Microsoft. Programmers would try to prohibit the use of their Open Source software by this new Linux distributor (can they do that?). After a few years of court cases, the entire Open Source movement would start to unravel.

Court cases against individuals by Microsoft regarding Windows look and feel

Imagine a world where Linux is steadfastly encroaching on the desktop market share of our beloved monopolist from Redmond. KDE looks a lot like Windows and surely makes those former Windows users feel right at home.

So what's a monopolist to do to protect the interests of its stockholders? Why, start a court case of course. And the best way to do this would be by taking to court individuals who have worked on KDE and by arguing that KDE treads on copyright laws because it has a Windows look-and-feel. This is certainly the case with the new KDE2, which has a System Information dialog which looks exactly like the one from Windows.

Any court cases against KDE would halt or seriously slow the movement of Windows to Linux/KDE. I agree this wouldn't really cripple the Open Source movement but any defeat by the KDE team would set Linux on the desktop back by years (I'm convinced KDE will be the standard Linux desktop, never mind what Red Hat says).

Olaf Beckman is a Software Engineer at at a large U.S. computer company in Holland. He lived in the U.S. as a teenager (5 years; Reston VA; Mclean VA; and is a graduate of Herndon High School.

This article first appeared on osOpinion and is provided under the OpenContent Public License.

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