Cox shows value in open discussions

Open source does not always mean open discussion, but the likes of Alan Cox illustrate why the latter is so important
Written by Leader , Contributor on

Linus Torvalds is a terrible engineer, it was revealed this week. And the source of this potentially damning accusation? First instincts would suggest a missive despatched from deep within the bowels of Microsoft's special FUD unit. But no, the comments actually come from one Alan Cox, sometime Linux kernel maintainer and still -- we believe -- a close friend of Torvalds.

And the puncturing of the almost mythic aura that surrounds the Finnish open source guru didn't stop there. Speaking at FOSDEM, the Free and Open source Software Developers European Meeting, in Brussels, Cox went onto highlight the repercussions of Torvald's apparent lack of engineering aptitude. "Linus has this bad habit of fixing security holes quietly," said Cox. "This is a bad idea as some people read all the kernel patches to find the security holes."

Incendiary comments surely: the Father of Linux is making life easier for hackers? In fact, the quotes actually say more about the intrinsic openness and honesty at the heart of the open source community than any fundamental security vulnerability in the Linux development process. Yet, the act of merely reporting these comments will still infuriate some of the more zealous open source enthusiasts who will not tolerate any suggestion that their approach to software development is less than perfect.

Here we have the fundamental paradox at the heart of open source movement. It is a system based on openness and frank discussion yet many of its supporters will not tolerate the mere suggestion that open source software development, like any process, has its faults too. The extreme followers of 'open-sourcism', echoing the distortion inherent in any fanatical movement, risk corrupting the very foundations of their beliefs in their unquestioning rebukes of any criticism. Belief in openness is defended with a closed mind.

Cox should be congratulated for his frankness: his decision to be open in his gentle criticism stands as an example to unthinking Linux zealots and the closed, marketing-polished world of proprietary software which are both guilty of the same flaw: refusal to acknowledge imperfection.

If Linux really is fundamentally a superior operating system to Windows and Unix variants, and open source a step forward in software development, it has surely more to do with open discussion of problems than the superhuman intellect bestowed on Torvalds et al. Long may the debate continue.

Editorial standards