Inside the Linux Foundation Purchase of Linux.com

Tuesday Mar 3rd 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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In classic Linux fashion, the new owner of the storied Linux.com site asks the open source community: what do you want to do with this central site?

Two months after SourceForge’s Linux.com site stopped publishing new stories, the reason has finally been made public: The site has been acquired by the Linux Foundation. As of today, the URL redirects to a welcome page that solicits suggestions from the community about what contents the site should have. The Linux Foundation will administer the site, and SourceForge will assist in the sale of advertising. However, in many ways, the news raises as many questions as it answers about what happened and what Linux.com will look like in the future.

Some background: The Linux.com URL was acquired by VA Linux, SourceForge's original name, in March 1999 for an undisclosed amount, although some rumors place the price as high as one million dollars. The site quickly become a major portal for original news about GNU/Linux. Eleven months later, after the acquisition of Andover.net, the owner of Slashdot and other sites, the company became the largest free and open source software (FOSS)-related media company in the world.

News of the recent sale was given to Linux.com employees and long-term contractors at the end of last November, when the editorial budget was not renewed, and Robin "Roblimo" Miller, the senior editor, received notice that he would be laid off. On January 1, Lee Schlesinger, the former managing editor and the only member of the Linux.com who was not let go, posted an article entitled, "A new year, a new Linux.com," announcing that changes were taking place."

For about a month afterwards, readers speculated freely in comments below this announcement. Many expressed anger that more information was not being offered.

In the last month, the comments had stopped. However, in the last week, several people had noticed on Whois.net that the domain had been transferred to The Linux Foundation.

Asked about the reason why the transfer took so long, Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, refused comment. However, Jon Sobel, group president, media at SourceForge, replied, "There was no specific reason. We did our best to preserve the site, but, understanding that this relationship [between SourceForge and the Linux Foundation] would likely come to fruition, we were careful not to do anything that would interfere with its future. We were proceeding with a great deal of care."

Neither Zemlin nor Sobel would discuss the price paid for the Linux Foundation -- or whether, as some rumors would have it, the transference of the URL was a donation. "Anything I say will just provoke more questions," Sobel says.

Reasons and approaches

The reason for the transfer is easy to see from the Linux Foundation's perspective. "We also manage the Linux trademark, and obviously Linux.com is an important brand asset," Zemlin says. Acquiring the URL, Zemlin adds, "just supports the activities that the Linux Foundation is already responsible for."

By contrast, the motivation of SourceForge is harder to discern. After all, according to today's news release, visits to the site were up 21% in the past year, so ad revenue was probably increasing, too. In addition, Linux.com was one of SourceForge's four major assets (the others, in no particular order, being the Slashdot site, the ThinkGeek store, and the SourceForge repositories for free and open source software). Moreover, with SourceForge reporting general revenue increases over the last year and last quarter, the need to dispose of assets does not appear to have been pressing.

Asked about the reasons, Sobel emphasized that the transfer was for the good of everyone involved. "In the long run, the best thing for the community, the Foundation and us is to have a robust, modern community web site, and we felt this was a better, faster way to get there, with the foundation and us together, than we could do ourselves."

Another unanswered question is exactly how the sale came about. According to Sobel, "We talk regularly with [the Linux Foundation], and I can't remember who said what to whom first. But it was a very natural discussion. We understand their aspirations, and we were independently thinking what the right thing would be for the community, and it was a discussion that came very naturally."

However, according to Zemlin, SourceForge approached the Linux Foundation about the sale -- a move for which he gives the corporation the highest praise. "The company could have done anything with that URL. They could have sold it to the highest bidder, and that highest bidder could have been a competitor. Instead, what they did was, they came to us, and worked with us to make sure that Linux.com is something that can serve the community for a long period of time."

This remark seems supported by another comments of Sobel's, in which he says that the transfer "was an internal discussion that began in our company months ago. This was not the result of being approached with an offer to buy this obviously desirable URL."

Since the timing shows that this decision was made before the announcement of Scott L. Kauffman's appointment as SourceForge's CEO, presumably it was made by the company's board of directors.

But, in the end, all that can be said for sure is that SourceForge decided to relieve itself of Linux.com, and chose to do so in a way that showed some responsibility to the community. Sobel states that there were "several people who might be best suited to work together with on this, and the Linux Foundation was our clear choice."

Deciding what comes next

Another mostly unanswered question is exactly how Linux.com will be used in the future. The Linux Foundation has added a page it calls IdeaForge on which visitors can suggest how to use the URL and vote on other suggestions.

"Rather than just taking over the old Linux.com site, what we're doing for the next couple of months is actually asking people in the Linux industry and the Linux community to come to Linux.com and tell us what they want to see," Zemlin explains. "Hopefully, in a couple of months, we'll have a good idea about how to use this asset of Linux in the best way to serve everyone."

So far, the suggestions include hardware and job directories, video how-tos, a social network, GNU/Linux success stories, and an online book store, but not a news site like the SourceForge Linux.com.

During this transition as well as afterwards, Zemlin adds, "We're going to run the site, and they're going to help us sustain the site through selling advertising."

Still, amid such questions, a few answers have become clearer with the announcement. The Linux Developer Network, the Linux Foundation's own news site, and the Foundation's video site will likely be merged or linked with Linux.com, according to Amanda McPherson, vice president, marketing and developer programs at the Foundation. All the sites will likely come under the editorial direction of community manager Brian Proffitt, and McPherson hopes to attract former Linux.com staff and contractors for the new incarnation of the site.

Moreover, asked whether the former content of the site would be preserved, Zemlin replied,, "Absolutely." Publishing an average of four stories each work day, Linux.com has been a major source of how-tos and community history, and some observers have been worried that this archival material might be lost in any transfer of the URL.

In addition, Zemlin has also given some indication of how the site's advertising policy might change. "To be clear," he says, "the kind of advertising we expect on the site is stuff that looks more like PBS-style "Brought to You By" rather than "Get a Cheap PC Here."

Asked specifically about whether Linux.com under the Foundation would accept advertising from Microsoft -- a source of many readers' complaints under SourceForge's management -- Zemlin replied, "We're the Linux Foundation. It's not like it's in our interest to advertise Microsoft products. That's pretty obvious."

"The message we want to give to the community is, 'We get it,'" says Zemlin. "We want you to participate in expanding this site. That's how the community works, that's how Linux has been successful, and that's how we want to move forward. What I would like to emphasize is: We would love everyone who has visited Linux.com in the past ten years to come to this new site, and tell us what they would like to see. That would be the most helpful thing."

Bruce Byfield is a former contributing editor at Linux.com

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