Will ZDNet ever get a clue about Linux?

The next time ZDNet runs a story about Linux and you start feeling the urge to click on the link and read it, I’ve got a piece of advice for you.
Lie down until it goes away.

If you have a clue about Linux, the story will just make you mad. If you’re trying to learn about Linux, ZDNet will fill you up with enough misinformation to confuse you for weeks.

In his morning Microsoft/Apple PR piece, David Coursey stated “Having fewer Linux distributions out there makes life easier for both developers and users. And it could even forestall some of the Balkanization that has hurt Unix in the past.”

Linux Balkanization is a good thing. There are a number of special-purpose Linux microdistributions that are exceptionally good at what they do. Their system requirements are miniscule: Give ’em a 486 (preferably a DX2/66 but many of them will run on less) and a network card and a few megs of RAM, and they’ll go do one thing for you and do it really well. This is good for the bottom line and for the enviornment. If the self-styled liberal Coursey really cares about keeping toxic waste out of landfills, he’d do well to learn about this and preach it from the pulpit he’s been so foolishly given. He could actually make a difference rather than sitting around and complaining all the time.

But closer to the mainstream, everything in the Linux community is moving against Balkanization. You’ve got UnitedLinux, a joint effort from SuSE, Caldera, TurboLinux and Connectiva to ensure their business-class distributions will be compatible. You’ve got the Linux Standards Base, which establishes system requirements. An LSB-compliant distribution will have its critical system files in a given place, and you can have expectations about what libraries will be present and where.

Many binary-only software packages already run on multiple Linux distributions anyway. And besides that, if I decide I want to run a Mandrake or a Gentoo kernel on my Debian box, nothing stops me from doing that.

The Balkanization argument is just pure FUD from an ignoramus. I truly wish I had something else to talk about. Hey, how about Raul Ibanez’s walk-off homer against the Cardinals on Sunday? Wasn’t that great? What’s that you say? It’ll contribute to the Balkanization of Linux about as much as what’s going on in the IT industry? You got that right, bro!

Then there’s this drivel from Friday morning, which states that people won’t program open source projects if they won’t get paid for their work. Which I can refute very easily: Who says they won’t get paid?

Consider this: My employer’s clients constantly want new stuff, but they don’t want to pay any money for it. Lately, that means we take disused PCs, whatever they might be, and load Linux on them and whatever Linux-based solution comes closest to doing the job for them. If it doesn’t quite do what they want, one of our programmers (or, in some cases, even a sysadmin) at our standard hourly rate can make modifications to it since we have the source. There doesn’t have to be a huge business plan. Nor does there have to be a legion of programmers writing code in their basements after hours day in and day out for years for lack of anything more fun to do. Open-source software can (and do) evolve simply from companies modifying the software to meet their own needs on a contract basis.

Consider how Linux got its outstanding collection of network drivers. Most of them were written by Donald Becker. Becker’s employer at the time (some outfit called NASA) needed high-speed network drivers to support the big Linux clusters they were building. So Becker wrote some drivers and they were released as GPL. Someone asked him once if he felt exploited, because he’d written drivers for dozens of network cards without getting much fame or recognition. Becker’s answer was simple: He wrote a couple dozen drivers for network cards, and in return he got a complete operating system he can use however he wants. How can anyone call that exploitation?

Red Hat could evaporate tomorrow, and the companies behind UnitedLinux could all go bust, and Linux would still live on. Slackware has always been profitable, and Debian is a volunteer project so it doesn’t have to make money anyway. The less-commercial distributions would pick up the slack, and companies and government agencies around the world will continue to adopt and adapt the massive existing code base to meet their needs. The army of hobbyists helps immensely, but its gradual or even sudden disappearance won’t kill the movement.

And I’ve run across several wonderful short programs recently that were written by college students as class projects. As for bigger projects, the Linux kernel itself started out as a CS student’s hobby. The GIMP, one of the most heavily used open-source apps, started off because two students wanted to make Web pages and needed a graphics program to do it. Don’t discount academia’s possible contributions.

Journalists are always afraid of technology they don’t understand. This is just a case of ZDnet being terrified of a technology they’re unwilling to understand.

6 thoughts on “Will ZDNet ever get a clue about Linux?

  • June 11, 2002 at 1:29 am
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    “terrified of a technology they’re unwilling to understand”

    Oh they understand it alright. They appear to have a bias against open source, perhaps part of a wider campaign against the concept, funded perhaps by the supplier of a closed source operating system which has been having so many security problems of late.

    perhaps not.

    “just because i’m paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me”
    “even paranoids have enemies”
    “paranoia equals perfect awareness”

    Tim

  • June 11, 2002 at 9:18 am
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    BTW, cute Linux cartoon yesterday in Nitrozac’s Joy of Tech. She’s quite a Mac fan, which certainly shows – but can be quite funny at times regardless. Of course, maybe I just like TTBs (Techno-Talking Babes ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • June 11, 2002 at 9:42 am
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    “Having fewer Linux distributions out there makes life easier for both developers and users. And it could even forestall some of the Balkanization that has hurt Unix in the past.”
    Well I haven’t read the story, but I have a completely different perspective on this quote. The “Balkanization” that has occurred is in regards to UNIX. How many different operating systems and shells are there of UNIX in the corporate world? What standards have been developed? Frankly, for a mainstream language, UNIX is cryptic and reverts to a DOS style. Not exactly an intuitive type, but you do need to become very familiar with it in order to be productive.
    It seems odd since it’s the 21st century and there have been some good operating systems so the evolution has really occurred for open source. But for the corporate world, there’s training, maintenance, and development, in any and all flavours desired, and with it all, the additional costs.
    Now there seems to be a fluctuating finite number of mainframes and minis, but consider the infinite personal computers and permutations of Linux there are and soon will be. Big business vs small business.
    Hmm, it’s also good to be in control and unique, as well.

  • June 11, 2002 at 11:00 am
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    Hmm, interesting “drivel” article. I have to agree with Carroll that money is a motivating factor for programmers. Hell, I went through a lot of schooling to learn and formalize my design and coding skills (no “Java in 21 Minutes While Eating a Pizza with One Hand” for me). To not earn a good living because some idealogue thinks software should be “free” (the “as in Beer” kind of free, not the FSF kind of free) would be idiocy. But that’s not the case.

    I have no problem with closed software. I write highly specialized closed-source software every day in a competitive industry. I earn money for that effort; that’s fine by me, too. But nothing prevents me from hopping into an OS project for fun. Hell, I could do it for profit, too, if I wrote something I wanted to sell, under OS principles.

    Are OS and closed source mutually exclusive? Of course not. Any “expert” (or columnist) claiming that all software should be open, or, conversely, that it’s unwise to open source for group review, is not grounded in reality. In a highly competitive, cut-throat sector, you usually don’t open the source code. But you also have a lot of expertise from domain specialists who know exactly what’s up (in my case, a third of our software employees have PhD’s in chemistry). But for pervasive software – like open protocols – yes, open the source. It only makes sense.

    Can you make money in both areas? I think so, but OS companies are still going through their “seedling” phases. They’re like Amazon has been for so many years. But big name backers are behind the OS idea, or at least behind the idea that all that is Microsoft is not good. My gut says you can make more or less at an OS company than a closed source one, but that you may not have as much job security. For now.

  • June 11, 2002 at 11:28 am
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    Well, for one thing, you’re using Unix every time you visit this site. And about 70% of other sites in the world. The Internet isn’t built on Windows NT. There’s more to Unix than the Bourne shell and commands like ls and tar.

    True, to master Unix, you have to familiarize yourself with a lot of weird stuff. But you can be productive in Unix with minimal to no command-line interaction. It’s not that different from using a mainframe running VMS or one of IBM’s many operating systems. Most routine administrative tasks can be accomplished with a set of menus or a Web browser interface.

    But back on topic, the people who talk loudest about Linux incompatibility have yet to produce a concrete example of it. I can think of a few theoretical examples of incompatibilities between distros, i.e. between current distributions of Red Hat Linux and SuSE Linux, but I don’t know if they exist in practice or only in theory. That’s OK; the burden of proof is on the detractors. Of course, if the detractors demonstrate an incompatibility, I expect the experts would come back with a workaround in fairly short order. And I can work around almost any incompatibility issue by grabbing the source and running (usually) the commands ./configure && make install.

    It’s no harder (and often easier) than working around the incompatibilities between the dozen-plus versions of Windows in widespread use today. Count ’em: Windows 95, 95B, and 95C; Windows 98 and 98SE; Windows ME, NT Workstation 4.0 and NT Server 4.0; 2000 Professional and Server; XP Home and XP Professional and XP Embedded; the can of worms that is Windows CE; and, of course, .NET Server and XP second edition are on the way. Not to mention all the service packs for all these versions and the incompatibilities that go along with those. If that’s not Balkanization, then I don’t know what Balkanization is. And yes, it affects you. For starters, Office XP doesn’t consistently run reliably on any version of Windows prior to XP. And if you’ve never run into DLL conflicts, you’re not a serious Windows user.

  • June 11, 2002 at 12:02 pm
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    I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that “Raul Ibanez’s walk-off homer against the Cardinals on Sunday” was inconsequential in general. Sure, it kept them less than 12 games out of first, and avoided a series sweep by the soon-to-be-NL-Central-leading Cardinals. The Royals are just continuing their rebuilding decade (continued from the 90’s). If anything, it showed Tony LaRussa’s generosity by sending Mike “Tee-Ball” Timlin out for the ninth inning after the Royals’ Khoury-league hitters smacked the ball around hard off of him in the eighth. Only the Cardinals’ stellar defense saved some extra-base hits.

    I’ll end my ribbing now. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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