What is the Linux community?
(IDG) -- First things first. I'm thrilled to be part of LinuxWorld. I think it's great that Linux is generating so much excitement these days that it has spawned its own dedicated press. If you're like me, you don't always care for the treatment Linux gets in the Windows-centric, tres duh press.
That makes the appearance of publications like this one, aimed squarely at the Linux community, all the more important. And it makes the opportunity to attempt some form of version control all the sweeter.
There have been two major stories in the computer press this year: Microsoft's legal battles and the emergence of Linux in the mainstream. Yin and yang. Negative and positive. It's as if there is a global conspiracy among editors which demands balance: equal parts of light and darkness. I'm not at all convinced that those two stories are unrelated.
If someone had tried to convince me a couple of months ago that Linus Torvalds's appearance on the cover of Forbes magazine would not be the high point of the year in Linux coverage, I would have argued with them long into the night. But since then, with the announcements of ports by all the major database players and the investment by Intel and Netscape in Red Hat, I won't argue at all. I said it then and I say it now, Linux has cachet, bebe.
As hot as Linux has been, and continues to be, it is perfectly understandable how stories that somehow miss the mark get to print. But enough is enough. One theme I've seen repeated is how the enterprise won't embrace Linux because there is no single place to turn for tech support. Another is dismissal of the Linux community.
Community: One of our greatest assets
Both stories reflect the fact that the reporters and editors involved simply don't understand what's going on. More than any other dynamic, it is the Linux community itself that drives Linux's surging popularity. That same community is also providing technical support far superior to that for which mainstream writers pine. That is, unless you just like to pay for long hold times on long distance calls only to be told that something must be wrong with your hardware.
Granted, to write about something as nebulous as a "community" of souls involved with a free, alternative operating system is not an easy task. Especially when the operating system in question has suddenly found itself the darling of a world jaded by revelation after revelation of the shady business practices of an unregulated monopoly. Attempts to pin it down precisely or to wrap it up neatly under a byline are foolhardy at best.
But let's back up a second. Why is this topic important? Who cares about the makeup of the Linux crowd? The answer is easy. It's important because it's is a question on the minds of many who are considering adding Linux to their repertoire of computing solutions. It's a question on the minds of consultants, SOHO (small office/home office) operators, and medium-to-global-sized enterprise IT department heads.
Hey, there are suits who worry about things like this. How would it look on their resume if they championed Linux as the choice for a new server one day and the next day's paper had a headline that read "Marxist Free Software Movement Denounces Capitalistic Running Dogs in Fortune 500." There goes the executive washroom key.
More level-headed types simply want to know what they may be getting into. The big question they want answered seems to be, who stands behind Linux when something goes wrong?
Come to think of it, that's a pretty good question to ask about any operating system, not just Linux.
Those in the know laugh at such a scenario. But those who have never been fired for buying Microsoft solutions don't. More and more of this Microsoft-friendly crowd is looking at Linux these days. Maybe it's because of the spotlight on Microsoft's business practices. Maybe it's because early looks at NT 5.0 aren't promising. Whatever the reasons, more and more journalists from the Windows world are tackling the question that's on the minds of so many of their readers.
The Linux community includes more than just its creators, Torvalds and Stallman and all the early contributors to GNU and Linux. Throw in the thousands of developers around the world who have contributed drivers, enhancements, and fixes. Add the commercial software companies porting their wares to Linux. Distributors like Red Hat and SuSE and Slackware are part of it, too. And don't forget the fast growing, fast changing, most important aspect of it all: Linux users around the world.
Guilty as charged
Some of the same reporters who don't quite grasp the difference between Red Hat and Linux are quick to criticize the Linux community for being rude and fanatical. They claim that any poor journalist who doesn't agree that Linux is the greatest thing to happen in computing since transistors is showered with abuse.
Now, I'm not saying there aren't rude Linux fans, nor that journalists haven't been abused by them. There are and they have been. All I'm saying is that story doesn't play here any more. I've read exactly the same things about Mac and OS/2 users. It seems as if any community of users other than Windows users are labeled the same way. I suspect the truth of the matter is that no user group likes to be treated unfairly, due to ignorance or bias, in the press.
Others have characterized us as hackers, or as denizens of the computer underground, or computer science students, or socialist/communist/anti-capitalist revolutionaries. A surly, undisciplined group who want to free not only software, but Kevin Mitnick and Willy the Whale, too.
To these charges I say yes. Yes to each and every one of them. The Linux community is all that plus chips too. But it isn't just any one of those things. It isn't even mostly any one of those things. It's diverse and vibrant and growing. And every time another individual, or another firm, or another organization decides to use Linux to an advantage, it changes just a little more.
Is anybody a "typical" Linux user?
My friend Jep Hill is a card-carrying member of the Linux community. He founded the Austin Linux Group (ALG) a few years ago when the Linux SIG of a regional PC users group just wasn't happening. Jep isn't a computer science student, never has been. He is a lawyer. He doesn't care much for Microsoft or for Windows, and he feels that Linux offers reliability and performance Windows just can't provide. He has Linux installed on a fast Alpha, on a twin-Pentium Pro tower, and on a notebook.
Jep is interested in Linux-based SOHO network solutions that offer easy connectivity to both Windows and the rest of the world. He is very active in the user group and spends countless hours nurturing it and the newbies who show up at almost every meeting, asking for help with a Linux install. His politics? I've known Jep for four years or so and I don't know what his politics are.
Several times Jep has pointed out stories in the trades complaining about the "lack" of tech support for Linux. Each one of these articles hold this up as a weakness that will keep Linux from competing for seats in the enterprise. Like InfoWorld, the editors of which named the Linux user community Best Tech Support organization last year, Jep and I know that help for all sorts of oddball problems with Linux is never far away.
A case in point: When Jep got his hands on a new Alpha PC164LX in August, he immediately set about installing Red Hat 5.1 on the beast. Try as he might, he could not get his Matrox Millennium II PCI video card to work in anything except 8-bit mode. He posted a request for help in a Red Hat mailing list on Sunday evening. It took nearly an hour for him to receive the first reply. It turns out that XFree86-3.3.2-13 was broken above 8-bit mode and he was directed to use the 3.3.2-7 version that came on the original RH 5.1 CD.
That was a problem, too, since Jep got his version of RH from a Power Tools CD and it contained only the broken server. But in the next couple of hours he received another 5 or 10 replies providing links to sites where he could download the needed version. Not bad for Sunday evening tech support, eh? I suppose all those stalwart defenders of the Microsoft Way would have preferred to wait until Monday morning, so they could pay whatever the "per incident" fee is to ask Microsoft for help.
Connie Neal is another regular at the ALG meetings. Ask her if she is a typical Linux user and she says "There is no person that is typical." I think she may be on to something there. Connie earned a Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Texas in 1978.
She and Jim bought a Mac in 1985 and used it well until it finally passed away a couple of years ago. That's when they bought a new machine and with the help of the ALG installed a copy of Linux. For the past 18 months, it has been the only operating system they've used at home.
Like Jep, Connie and Jim give lots of their time to the ALG and to helping newcomers find their way around. She's the local emacs guru. She maintains the ALG mailing list. She is Webmaster of an internationally known site. Why does she use Linux? Connie says "It works. It is intellectually challenging. It is infinitely configurable."
The ties that bind
I'm not trying to say that very general, loose-fitting characterizations of the Linux community can't be made. I think they can be. I'm about to make some, as a matter of fact. But they will hinge on topics I haven't seen the mainstream press address: computer literacy, proficiency, and independence.
InfoWorld's editors definitely had it right last year: the hallmark of the Linux community is its members' willingness to help each other find the right solution. The example given above, with Jep's problem and its fast resolution, isn't an isolated one.
The Internet provides newsgroups, FAQs, mailing lists, documentation, contacts, and IRC channels dedicated to every aspect of life with Linux. Go to Deja News and enter Linux as an "Interest Finder." There are 37 newsgroups listed in response. On the day I'm writing this, a quick check on the Undernet IRC channels shows that 17 of these are Linux related.
Everywhere questions about hardware, security, applications, networking, installations, and you name it are being asked and answered at all hours of the day. It's Eric Raymond's concept of "the cathedral and bazaar" applied to tech support. For those who just aren't comfortable with the informality of the bazaar approach, companies like Red Hat and others are beginning to offer more traditional commercial support plans.
Linux may never be as easy to install and use as Windows or Macintosh. Perhaps that is why I find the level of computer literacy and proficiency of Linux users to be a cut above the rest of the crowd. But neither Connie nor her husband are programmers. The learning curve may have been a little steep for then as they moved from the Mac to Linux, but with the help of others they've not only reached self-sufficiency, they are teaching others to do the same. The point being you don't need to be a guru to learn to be productive in Linux.
But attributing social, political, or economic agendas to the Linux community makes absolutely no sense at all to me. No more than it would to claim the Windows community shares Bill Gates's ethics and values.
Joe Barr is a software professional, writer, and self-proclaimed dweeb. He has been working in the industry since 1974 as a programmer, analyst, consultant, or manager. In 1994 he began writing a monthly column called "Papa Joe's Dweebspeak Primer" in Austin TX's Tech Connected magazine. The column exists today as an e-zine and newsletter at www.pjprimer.com, which has run on Linux since its inception.
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