What makes open source tick?

Summary:What makes open source really tick? And, more importantly, how long can it keep ticking before some kind of time bomb explodes?

What makes open source really tick? And, more importantly, how long can it keep ticking before some kind of time bomb explodes?

I pondered these questions this week as I roamed the halls of the LinuxWorld trade show at the San Jose Convention Center.

I'm not alone in my musings. At the show, open-source backers expressed concern regarding whether participation in their movement by corporate players like Compaq, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems will wreck the geek paradise they've built.

Indeed, much of the solidarity of open source's cross-cultural, cross-country membership is attributable to a common "Fight the power" attitude -- the attitude that makes open source such an appealing idea to folks who are rooting for David to triumph over Goliath.

But more and more, I'm thinking it may not be the Fortune 500's new-found love for Linux that could be the undoing of open source. Instead, it might be the parochialism of the open 'sorcerers' themselves.

Amidst the pony-tailed, multi-pierced, roller-blading attendees of this week's conference is an underlying air of tolerance. Open source is premised upon the equal participation of any and every hacker, regardless of gender, race, religion or hair-color choice.

But if tolerance is the watchword in the open-source world, why is the community so hard on newbies?

Anyone who mispronounces "GNOME" or "Linus" (it's actually "Lee-nus," not "Ligh-nus," like one of the Peanuts characters) is immediately ridiculed. Folks who don't get the humor behind some of the geekier open-source t-shirts and bumper stickers that proliferate at open-source events are branded as outcasts.

The prevailing attitude, as one Linux backer's e-mail tagline expressed so succinctly, is: "If it's not pro-Linux, it's FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)." Many open-source backers seem to take the position of "If you're not with us, you're a Microsoft-loving, Intel-bought-and-paid-for shill."

It's one thing to revel in insider jokes; it's another to ostracize the very business-oriented customers that the open-source movement needs to challenge the status-quo industry powerhouses.

Open-source vendors don't need to dumb things down to the point of stupidity for the "fresh meat." But they do need to be a bit more patient in allowing the uninitiated to come up to speed. They need to acknowledge the shortcomings in Linux that have made it less-than-intuitive for the masses and move beyond that point. And they need to encourage, not slam, the open-source-friendly developers who are toiling away in the recesses of the big corporations.

I'd like to see open source flourish as an alternative to proprietary software. It would be amazing if a movement fueled by "trust, not antitrust" (to paraphrase a VA Linux t-shirt) could shake up the software world as we know it. But the movement's attitude needs some readjustment before this can happen, in my opinion.

What do you think? What needs to change -- if anything -- if open source is to thrive and survive? TalkBack below and let me know.

Topics: Open Source, Linux

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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