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Fun with the press. This last week has been a really remarkable one for awful Linux reporting. We're going to look at a few examples to show just how misrepresentations of Linux reflect a misunderstanding of what we are about, and how they can be damaging. Before we start, however, we'll put in the customary plea: if you choose to respond to the authors of any of these articles, please do so in a polite and factual manner. Flaming will just inspire more bad press in the future. See the Linux Advocacy HOWTO for practical suggestions on how to deal with the press.
We'll start with the "PROLIN" virus which has been circulating. PROLIN is not a Linux story - it is, after all, just another Windows virus. The fact that it tells its victims to run Linux was enough for some to try to make it into a Linux story, though. Consider this article in Wired News:
"The worm's pro-Linux message isn't a huge surprise," said Pirkka Palomaki, director of product marketing at F-Secure. "Most people who are capable of programming a virus are also Linux fans. Which is not to say that all Linux users are computer crackers."
It sure was nice of them to avoid implicating all Linux users. One could actually take this quote in a positive light: people who actually know what they are doing prefer Linux. But the real intent was clearly to associate Linux with Windows viruses, which is nonsensical. Linux users who can program have no lack of cool projects that would welcome their talents; they don't have the time to write stupid stuff.
Red Hat recently made it official that a Sparc version of Red Hat 7 is not forthcoming. Here's what CNet News.com had to say about that:
The move parallels the gradual decline in the number of CPUs that can run Windows NT. Initially, Microsoft's higher-end operating system was intended to run on PowerPC, MIPS, Alpha and Intel CPUs, but minimal interest led Microsoft to cut back just to Intel chips.
The problem here, of course, is that the number of CPUs that can run Linux is steadily increasing. Finding a distribution that supports the Sparc is not hard, even in the absence of Red Hat 7. This article is a classic example of the "Red Hat = Linux" fallacy. Linux is far bigger than any one Linux company, and it is important that people understand that.
Moving on: Dell is, of course, partnering with Eazel. There are a lot of interesting things one could say about that deal, but here's what ZDNet chose to report:
The deal extends the 'holy war' between GNOME and KDE (K Desktop Environment). Dell is clearly favoring the GNOME project, with Michael Massetti, Dell's software marketing director, admitting he hoped this deal would make Dell's Linux desktop offering more competitive with KDE.
Very few people in the Linux community are interested in wars, holy or otherwise. Competition there most certainly is, but that's a different story. Holy wars are the creation of media outlets searching for a more compelling story. These creations present a poor image of our community, to say the least.
This Upside article about Plan 9 reveals another common anti-Linux theme:
In an industry where microprocessors double and quadruple their speed regularly, software seems trapped in some sort of weird development cycle reserved for electric utilities and Mexican political parties. Take a dig through the source code of most popular operating systems, from Windows 2000 to the growing crop of open source reinterpretations of Unix, and chances are you'll find artifacts of architectural and design decisions dating back to the Tet Offensive.
The author is unlikely to have dug through the Linux source, much less that of Windows 2000; yet he feels qualified to pronounce on the quality of the code there. Much that is in Linux most certainly reflects a few decades of accumulated experience; it would be foolish to throw that away. Linux is also new where it counts - where better ways of doing things have been found. Those who would portray Linux as a relic of the past are showing ignorance of both the value of experience and the real nature of Linux.
Finally...ZDNet tells us Beware Linux vendors that don't get it. The author was looking for a kernel patch to help defend against SYN flood attacks:
My trip to the Mandrake Web site was, well, interesting. I was unable to determine if this patch is available for the Mandrake version of Linux. The site was filled with self-congratulatory rhetoric and an equal amount of anti-Microsoft propaganda, but very little in the way of technical support and not a single phone number.
The "anti-Microsoft propaganda" on the Linux-Mandrake web site is rather hard to find. And those who have actually contacted MandrakeSoft know that the company tends to be very highly responsive to its users. If you want free technical support, you can certainly join one of the mailing lists and probably get your question answered. Nonetheless, this particular piece is not entirely without merit. The Linux community should work at making it easier to solve problems. Many resources are there (see, for example, the Linuxcare support database), but many things are still harder than they should be.
The above is an impressive array of negative press. Such press, however, has been most notable by its absence. Windows, after all, probably sees more attacks than this on its best days. We can probably expect to see more negative press as Linux continues to gain users and mindshare. Consider it an opportunity to see and respond to the misunderstandings of Linux and free software in general.
Bruce Perens moves to HP. Bruce Perens has announced that he has a new job - with Hewlett-Packard. In itself, this move is just another Linux personality making a career move. It is interesting, though, in what it indicates for the Linux business environment in general.
Bruce's new job at HP will involve being an activist for Linux, both internally and externally. The internal job will be the harder one; he'll have to work to promote the spread of open source throughout the company, to get it to release more software, and in general to keep HP honest with respect to free software. HP is a huge company, and this task could keep Bruce busy for a long time.
Bruce, of course, has been part of the Linux community for many years. He was an early leader of the Debian project, a founding member of the Open Source Initiative, the first leader of the Linux Standard Base project, and also the author of packages such as busybox. His contributions over the years have been numerous, even if he has managed to step on a few toes in the process.
His most recent position was at the head of the Linux Capital Group, a venture firm which made investments in startup Linux companies. The Group got into the game a little late, however, and only managed to make investments in a couple of companies; the best known of those is Progeny Linux Systems. The climate in the stock market since last April has not been particularly friendly to Linux investors, and the Linux Capital Group has stopped funding new companies. With little to do there, Bruce concluded that it was time to move on to something a little more secure.
The shutdown of the Linux Capital Group highlights an already well-known fact: the capital markets are currently an overtly hostile place. Not long ago, a company with a decent idea for a free software business could be almost sure of obtaining funding. Even not-so-decent ideas often got a warm reception. Many new Linux companies popped up in that era, and many of them are still with us.
But it is now a much harder time to start a Linux business. Getting the money to grow beyond a handful of people is a difficult proposition. What that means is that, until the situation changes, the companies that exist now are it - don't expect to see too many new ones in the near future.
What we will see, clearly, is a lot more of large, established companies like HP. Some observers have said for years that the ultimate winners in the Linux business arena will be the established computing companies. Once they wake up to Linux, their resources and mindshare will prove hard to beat. HP, by hiring Bruce, has shown that it is waking up. Many others (IBM, SGI, Dell, Compaq, Oracle, etc.) are showing increasing interest.
As the Linux market develops, those companies (and others) are going to want a piece of it. Expect to see more of them trying to hire high-profile Linux hackers before too long. There is, increasingly, real money at stake. There will be real competition to go along with it.
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December 7, 2000