Linux Foundation: Corporate Lackey or Linux Savior?

Friday Jan 26th 2007 by James Maguire
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The newly formed Linux Foundation inspires plenty of doubts in the Linux community. Do the naysayers have a point?

The recent merging of two leading open source groups, OSDL and FSG, seems like good news for Linux. With the combined resources of both outfits, the brand new Linux Foundation will have more muscle to fight the good fight and triumph in the never-ending battle against proprietary software.

jim zemlin, linux foundation, open source

Jim Zemlin, Linux Foundation

However, out in the Linux community, flickers of doubt were heard. Skepticism. Anxiety. Uncharitable postings on message boards.

Some murmured, darkly, that the Linux Foundation is merely a corporate front, with sponsors likes IBM, HP, Intel, and Novell (wait, didn’t Novell just sign an accord with…Microsoft?). So the Foundation is just a shadow group designed to put the corporate boot on the neck of Linux, some said.

Still others wondered if the Foundation would do anything useful at all. For instance, Gartner analyst George Weiss, quoted in Linux.com, opined that the group has a short window to prove itself: “If you don't hear from them for another 12-15 months, and they disappear into the woodwork, you can write them off."

Other observers scoffed at the notion of a central guiding light for Linux. All those free-spirited distros – Slackware, Knoppix, Gentoo, the list goes on – who’s going to rule them all? Organizing the Linux community is like herding cats. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do. (Translated: “If I wanted to be a subservient dweeb I’d buy a button-down shirt and go work for Microsoft.”)

So alas, add up all the doubts and you realize the new Linux Foundation has some work to do.

Someone, clearly, had to get to the bottom of this. So a humble reporter from Datamation, his notepad full of questions, placed a call to Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation’s executive director.

Jim’s World

The first thing you realize upon talking with Jim Zemlin is that he’s a natural communicator. While many trade group spokespeople are scripted automatons, Zemlin seems open and real, even possessing a spark of charisma. A born front man.

Still, maybe that’s part of the plot by the Foundation’s corporate sponsors – hire someone who seems authentic. So Jim, what’s the deal? What about all this talk of big business controlling Linux?

Zemlin laughs. “I appreciate all the [talk of] conspiracy out there,” he says.

“There’s lot of theories out there, and you know what? That’s what I love about open source.” He chuckles again. “I love that stuff. But at the end of the day, this is about providing choice, about providing freedom. There are certain principles in the open source world that nobody is going to compromise.

“I’d say, for once in history, the interests of large corporations and community members, people who use technology, are aligned.

“And it is fine to have corporate participation. But I would also point out this organization will have direct representation from key community developers, on our board of directors. Our work group and technical activities are completely open. Our standards specifications are wholly published, online, free for all. The development tools that we build are completely available under an open source license, free to anyone who cares to download and use them.”

He welcomes close examination of the Foundation and its activities. “I think that scrutiny is a good thing. And this organization wants to be very open to that.”

Next page: Who Gave You the Authority?

Who Gave You the Authority?

In its mission statement, the Linux Foundation says that it “promotes, protects and standardizes Linux.” It’s that last goal, “standardizes,” that raises a few eyebrows. Does the Foundation think it’s going to corral a bunch of born-to-be-wild open source programmers?

jim zemlin, linux foundation, open source

Jim Zemlin, Linux Foundation

“Keep in mind that standards aren’t punitive in nature. In other words, nobody goes to jail because you don’t follow a standard,” Zemlin says, with a laugh. “People can – and in some cases are highly incented to – go away from the standard, to enhance or come up with some sort of innovation.

“But at the same time, you’re incented to have a standard, to have a common backward-compatible set of components, so that you can participate in a growing market. So you have sort of this dual incentive model.

“In the world of proprietary software, standard setting is real easy – one company defines the standard and everybody has to follow that standard. And it precludes choice.

“In the new world of Linux, you have this collaboration between the upstream developers of open source software, and the downstream people who create Linux distributions, whether they’re commercial or non-commercial. And all of them work together, in a public forum, to develop a publicly available specification that is open and free for anyone to use, should they choose to participate in that market.”

What Does It Mean to ‘Standardize’ Linux?

A plan to standardize Linux sounds good in theory, but does it mean that to join the action, a distro has to lose its individual stamp?

“There will still be unique components of the different Linux distributions that developers can take advantage of, and [they] will enter into support contracts with those distributions,” Zemlin says. Interfering at that level – “That’s just not our game.”

“So I don’t want to characterize this as a ‘write once, run everywhere’ standard. What it does is that it makes it dead simple to target the platform, to easily enter in to support agreements with the various vendors who provide Linux distributions, with fewer changes to their software.

“You also get a forum within which you can define component standards, that enable Linux to interoperate with all the third party systems that are out there in the data center today.” These component standards could guide everything from printer drivers to management software interfaces, he says.

The Curse of the Industry Trade Group

Many industries, the software industry included, are littered with well-intentioned trade groups that don’t do much. They pass resolutions, sip chardonnay, and put out press releases. Meanwhile the actual industry ignores the toothless tiger.

Is the Linux Foundation one of those do-nothing groups?

“I think it’s clear what our charter is,” Zemlin says. “I think what you should expect from us is clear action in the next months.” In particular, the Foundation will be “releasing subsequent versions of our standard specification.” Furthermore, “I can see activity where we clearly demonstrate how we support the Linux development community.”

While Zemlin acknowledges the doubters, “I would also say that I’ve heard that kind of skepticism before. It was in the mid ‘90s, and it was about open source and Linux in general,” he says, laughing about how skepticism never goes away, it just changes targets.

But kidding aside, “This is tough work, it’s complex, it requires a great deal of cooperation amongst organizations that are tough competitors,” he says. “And we think we’ve got a critical mass of all the right folks at the table. Both from the industry perspective, but also from the community’s perspective. And we think we’re going to be successful, so keep an eye on us – absolutely.”

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