US Report: Infighting within the Linux family

When a new organisation pops up pledging to promote computing standards, the announcement is about as controversial as motherhood and apple pie.

But when a couple of software companies announced the formation of the Linux Standards Association, the move drew fire from the grass roots developer's community that has grown up around Linux. The LSA introduced itself Monday as an organisation that will help make Linux more appealing to business, through setting a "minimum standard" to guide development of the operating system. "The time has come for the Linux community to examine the product it produces," the LSA said in a statement.

Linux is the free, UNIX-style operating system that originally developed by Finnish university student Linus Torvalds. The OS has recently been getting increased attention from the software community as an alternative to Microsoft's domination of the operating-system market. The initial reaction to the formation of the LSA has been mainly one of protest: Linux, the overall idea seems to be, wants to be free.

"This is a huge scam," commented one user on slashdot.org, a Web site frequented by Linux developers. "This is NOT the direction LINUX should be going, or that it needs to be going. Don't let a good OS go bad." Linux's free-form development, the fruit of individual efforts by users around the globe, has resulted in an operating system with a number of variants. Indeed, there is no one "standard" version of Linux, as there is with, say, Windows 98. The freedom of Linux's developers has led to varied and powerful software, but has also made it difficult, argues the LSA, for vendors to sell and support.

"Failure to create, define and promote... a brand standard will result in the commercial support for Linux falling to the side as (vendors) realise that the costs of participating will exceed the benefit of sales," according to the LSA. But the LSA's existence raises several questions. Other organisations are also jockeying to position themselves as arbiters of the Linux standard. Industry executives say there is no guarantee the Linux community will rally around the LSA's plan to introduce a "Standard Linux" to guide vendors.

What's more, critics say that tying the operating system down with a centralised process could kill the grass-roots spirit that has made Linux successful. "It seems to me there are quite a few of these 'I know what's best for Linux; send me some money I'll tell you' type of organisations popping up," wrote one user, commenting on LSA's announcement on slashdot.org. "I suppose it's inevitable given Linux's open nature, we better be keeping our eye on the ball as far as who is trying to take control of any 'Linux Standards.'"

Another user more plainly expressed the difference between Linux's open-source-code approach and the proprietary nature of commercial operating systems, summing up the entire episode as "just another Microsoft sponsored scheme" to destroy Linux. "Stay with the groups led by recognised community leaders," according to the anonymous posting.

Some influential members of the Linux community acknowledge the need for standards -- but contend those standards are already in place. "We have had de-facto standards already," said Linus Torvalds, who developed the operating system. "Now, because of certain commercial interests, certain people seem to think that they need to be written down... it's not a question of changing the operating system per se, it's a question of documentation... writing it down, making it official. And that's going to take time."

Torvalds, who said latecomers are jumping onto the Linux-standards bandwagon because of recent media attention, maintained little will get accomplished anytime soon. "I suspect that the LSA is going to be maybe a player, but not necessarily THE player," he said.

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