Supporting the minority: Is open source over-extended?

Supporting the minority: Is open source over-extended?

Summary: Slashdot has singled out a Live Journal entry by Red Hat's Ulrich Drepper titled "Dictatorship of the Minorities" that raises an interesting topic. Drepper argues that it doesn't further the cause of free software to continue developing on closed platforms, and that there's little benefit in supporting "minority" architectures like m68k, PA RISC and so forth.

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TOPICS: Open Source
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Slashdot has singled out a Live Journal entry by Red Hat's Ulrich Drepper titled "Dictatorship of the Minorities" that raises an interesting topic. Drepper argues that it doesn't further the cause of free software to continue developing on closed platforms, and that there's little benefit in supporting "minority" architectures like m68k, PA RISC and so forth.

There are many that will argue that this is one of the strengths of open source. We're the "big tent" party. To join Microsoft's party, or at least to keep up, you need to have a relatively recent computer in the x86 or x86-64 family. You won't be installing Windows XP on that 486 or aging Sun Sparcstation. But you can install Linux and some of the BSDs on it. (I grant you, it won't be very speedy to run Linux on a 486 these days -- but it should still be possible to do so, even with the most recent versions of the kernel.)

But, that flexibility does come at a cost, in terms of complexity. Supporting multiple platforms requires additional testing, introduces additional hurdles when code that works on x86 or Linux doesn't work quite right on UltraSPARC or AIX. In short, it's not as easy to develop for multiple hardware platforms and operating systems as it would be to develop for, say, Linux and x86/x86-64 alone.

Drepper suggests that open source projects drop support for proprietary OSes and  take a hard look at which hardware architectures are supported as well. This wouldn't preclude support for "minority" hardware platforms or proprietary OSes, since the code is still open and available, but the interested groups would have to maintain their own trees and deal with the necessary changes to make a project run on their target hardware and/or operating system.

My first question is, has open source been unduly hampered by providing support to so many different hardware platforms and OSes? Are we over-extended, as it were?

If open source projects hunkered down and started to focus solely on Linux on a few hardware platforms, would development speed up significantly? Would quality be greatly improved? It's easy to reach the conclusion that fewer platforms equals faster development, but I'm not sure that's the case. I've exchanged e-mails with several Debian developers about the delays with Sarge, and found that several thought that dropping support for architectures in Debian would not speed up development -- and would reduce the quality of Debian overall.


My next question is, what would the cost be? Drepper suggests that many of the "minority" platform supporters fail to pull their weight when it comes to actually helping the projects. Whether or not that's the case, I can't say. I'm sure many developers who contribute to open source projects are doing so in order to help development on their favorite platform. What about companies that sponsor development or allow employees to contribute to projects like GCC, GNOME or Samba? Would it be in Sun's or IBM's best interest to contribute to Samba, if the Samba team suddenly decided that it would treat Linux on x86/x86-64 as the preferred platform? It's worth considering that many projects might lose some top-notch developers if the focus is narrowed to just Linux and common platforms.

Dropping support for proprietary OSes is also a double-edged sword. A project might save time and energy by not worrying about Cygwin, for example. Those of us who use Linux on the desktop care very little whether a program also runs on Cygwin on top of Windows, so long as it runs on Linux. However, there are still significant numbers of users who have to use Windows at work, but want the tools they use at home. There are also many users who get their first tastes of open source on proprietary platforms. Reducing their options may not be the best way to promote open source and free software.

Topic: Open Source

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13 comments
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  • Support for "minority" platforms..

    This support is not given by the "main" contributors to open source projects. Generally the people who have an interest in these platforms port the software on their own. So the only people wasting their time on minority platforms are those that actually want it for that platform. That is the beauty of open source. You want Linux to run on your Timex Sinclair, then you can spend the time making it run.
    Patrick Jones
  • If that were true

    then why have Linux and BSD BOTH? They do the same thing, and use the same software - so it must be a waste of time/effort/manpower to have both of these products.

    There are SO MANY OSS contributors out there - with more joining every minute - that there is PLENTY of extra manpower to DO the testing, migration, etc. This guy is thinking like a closed-shop proprietary vendor - where cutting heads makes for efficiency. In the OSS world, the manpower is unlimited as is the morale of the workers. There is plenty of room for everyone.

    Fact of the matter is, the poor but ingenious people out there, that can obtain a computer that is non-mainstream (like an old SPARCstation), can take that computer and make it work! Wow, poor people that can find good use for "obsolete" computers - if that isn't empowering, then I don't know what is.
    Roger Ramjet
    • Apache, anyone?

      The single most popular open-source project ever, Apache, is developed on FreeBSD systems. The Apache web site is a FreeBSD system. The Apache developers (no, I am not one of them) developed on a platform they knew and felt comfortable with. I can't remember ever reading any negative issues anyone has had with that situation.

      POSIX compliance, under most circumstances, ensures that software will run on other POSIX systems. Of course, most of this discussion is with C or C++, while Perl, PHP, Python, and (I'm led to believe) Java provide an even greater measure of cross platfom compatablility.
      RestonTechAlec
  • Not...

    ... over extended. However, it takes a lot of time to troubleshoot small problems on an obscure os that only a few people use. It's not that open source is even close to overextended its people looking at it and going what's worth more:

    1) Supporting an ancient ancient architecture and platform which is maybe used by 1-2% of the userbase of the product.

    2) Adding new features and making the program more useful in the long run for the majority of users.
    Shadus
  • fantastic os, no supporting software

    I recently downloaded and installed the new
    testing version of Debian Sarge, it actually
    installed on my machine (something it did not do
    before) and is fantastic and beautiful. It runs
    faster than Bindows, has a lot of supporting
    stuff already with it, and I am truly impressed
    and grateful to the developers. As soon as I get
    some cash, I'll mail them something.
    I am however, still stuck without a real
    newsreader, and a bunch of software that won't
    run on my Linux machine (like cad, solidworks,
    adobe products ) that I have paid substantial
    sums of money for, learned to use, etc. There
    are also problems with drivers (I have an Nvidia
    chipset that is a piece of crap) and an ATI card
    that has video that I will never see.
    The real challenge for Linux is getting the
    support of hardware and software makers and
    showing them that Linux is for real, and will
    remain around for the long term, and that in fact
    it is BETTER than bindows.
    pesky_z
    • No real newsreader?

      slrn for text groups
      Pan for binary groups
      rpmyers1
  • Minority platforms

    Do keep in mind that it hasn't been that long since 64-bit systems were a "minority platform" that projects couldn't justify supporting. There's a long-term benefit from insisting on portability, and supporting minority platforms is one way to keep a running check on design for portability.

    I [u]will[/u] agree that the main-tree developers shouldn't spend too much time on platform-specific code for minority platforms. However, #IFDEF lets that stuff get contained in a way that poses very little risk to the main body of code. On the other hand, if a SPARC programmer points out that code has an endianism that's a bug even if it doesn't show up on IA32.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • But...

    But the world is a multi-OS world and it always will be. It doesn't make any sense for a developer to focus on one OS.

    The answer is not to focus all development on one platform, but to evolve development tools and runtime environments into something standardized.

    Operating Systems are a commodity now. Businesses need to be able to move between them. The market is finally starting to grow up. Vendors need to find ways to generate revenue other than through operating systems.
    zztong
  • Do not put any limitation in Open Source project.

    Let the users and even those Open Source developers decide what's good for them. It could be a painful or slow process, but eventually it will worth it.
    For example, AbiWord and OpenOffice support so many platforms that they quickly become the standard of my lab. If they only support Linux ans SunOS, I am not so sure the taking over of MS Office in my lab will happpen so quick. Just a thought.
    chiishen
  • NO!

    -
    Reverend MacFellow
  • If Who?

    This is why it's called open source. It's not a who or them. Unless your talking about RHEL or something. It's people from all over the world writing code. What's amazing is the fact that it's compiled to run on everything. It grows it's own sucess. I have used Linux for a long time. It freaks me out to see how far it has come! Open source will be whatever people make it to be. Better all the time, for whatever it's compiled for.
    xstep
  • Message has been deleted.

    Reverend MacFellow
  • No

    How could it be over-extended? By you experts own words in prior topics, everyone writes the code and it is perfect! No bugs, no problems, everything installs and runs with no errors! Yeah right, and the moon is made of blue cheese! Your pet OS is full of holes, if you read the security alerts on Secuna, you would know just how insecure your hole ridden home brew OS actually is! You slam MS all the time for these same problems, but when you have them in your wonderful software, it's ok! I really don't care which OS you folks use, just don't throw too many rocks till you cover your glass house!!
    blacksheepxlch1