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.