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Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolves?

Caution, not fear, guides Linux community attitudes towards major vendors.
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Written by Evan Liebovitch on
Last week my ZDNet colleague Mary Jo Foley asked publicly why Linux backers don't fear its new big friends. With many members of the traditional high-tech industry jumping on the open source bandwagon -- including IBM, Intel, Dell and others -- she wants to know why Linux users aren't protesting. Or predicting doom. Or even complaining.

Elsewhere, some contemplate the (rather silly to me) notion of Microsoft getting seriously into the Linux OS market, wondering whether Redmond's influence would disrupt the current open source dynamics. Feedback was understandably incredulous, but hardly fearful.

It doesn't really take long to understand the lack of fear, once you understand why Linux even exists.

Simply put, the movement towards free and open source software and the associated shift in power is bigger than IBM, HP, Compaq, and Sun all rolled up together. It's a social movement that is slowly but surely changing the way that people develop software and think about their computers.

If there's any fright at play here it's as much the vendors' fear of open source as anything else. This societal shift is letting users take back control over their futures. You could even think of the GNU General Public License (GPL) as IT's Magna Carta. Just as the Magna Carta gave rights to British subjects, the GPL enforces consumer rights and freedoms on behalf of the users of computer software.

The status quo of commercial computing relies heavily on inertia -- once users make a strategic decision to go with a specific vendor, they find breaking away from that vendor difficult and expensive. Going from Windows to Unix is a pain. Going from AS/400 to Windows is a pain. Heck, even staying loyal to the same vendor is not without its risks and migration headaches (Windows 9X to NT/2000, and SunOS to Solaris, for instance).

To be sure, there are plenty of IT managers who appreciate and even like the subservience of one-vendor computing. Some, however, are simply fearful of choice, and others just haven't reached the breaking point. They can easily deflect complaints about mediocrity, while shrugging their shoulders at suggestions of alternatives and pointing to the outrageous cost of switching vendors.

But more and more computer users, both private and corporate, are discovering that open source doesn't just level the playing field -- it levels the whole stadium. Using open source prevents vendors from locking customers into software that can only be maintained by one source. In the world of open source, vendors keep customers based on how well they attend to user needs, not by how well they restrict users' ability to switch vendors.

At the source of this debate over IT dollars is the fact that the GPL prohibits the distribution of proprietary code enhancements. This is bad news for any vendor whose business model depends upon proprietary, closed software. Some vendors have referred to the GPL as a virus. I've even heard the GPL called "unethical" because its use complicates efforts to develop unique value that vendors can turn into a competitive advantage.

Well, it's no surprise that Linux is a challenge to those companies wanting to capitalize on it. (A quick glance at the tumbling stock price of any Linux vendor bears this out.) But it's not impossible, and the challenge is worth taking when end users are demanding freedom from vendor dominance. The big advantage of using the GPL is that companies know that nobody -- including themselves -- can take their work, extend it, and seal it away in a proprietary box (like Apple is doing to BSD code in its OS X release). Those who want to participate in the Linux world, regardless of size, are quite welcome to add their fingers to this grand virtual Ouija board. They can help steer, but if they push too hard the rest will just push back -- harder.

So what's to be scared of?

Should mainstream computer vendors be scared of Linux? Let me know in the TalkBack below.

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