The secret of Linux
by Frank Hayes
(IDG) -- At the recent LinuxWorld Expo you couldn't help noticing that every television and radio business show trotted out an expert or two to try to explain just what this Linux thing is. The experts weren't exactly clear.
Fortunately, I took notes. According to the experts I heard, Linux is free — except most people pay about $50 for it. And it was written by one guy from Finland — and also a few thousand other people. And they're all working for free — except the ones making money from it. Best of all, the Linux source code is freely available. What's source code? Well, it's sort of like a blueprint, or a set of plans, or a diagram, or — hey, we're out of time!
The mass media did a pretty good job describing the Internet and even Java for ordinary businesspeople. But Linux baffled them. Maybe that's because there's a dirty little secret hidden beneath Linux's open-source, group-developed, hacker-philosophy, buzzword-happy surface.
That secret: Linux is just software. Not a revolutionary paradigm shift. Not the end of the software industry or even Microsoft. Not a religion, at least not for corporate IT people. Just another piece of software. Is it the product of radical free-software fanatics? Maybe. Who cares? The politics of Linux's programmers matters not at all to a computer. Either it works or it doesn't. It runs or it crashes.
Giveaway software isn't exactly a radical idea these days. Just ask those wild-eyed anarchists at Netscape, Sun, Microsoft and IBM. And providing source code isn't just an old notion, it's positively ancient — IBM did it routinely until the 1980s.
Linux isn't even free — not for corporate IT shops, anyhow. Add up the costs of installation, testing, support, training and the political infighting that comes with any new technology in an IT shop, and your total cost of running Linux is about the same as NT, Unix or anything else. The "free" sticker price is a tiny fraction of that cost.
No wonder big vendors — IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Sun, SAP — are lined up for Linux. It sounds radical, hip and free. In practice, it's still just software. IT customers will kick the tires, run it through evaluations and try it on pilot projects just as we would with any other product.
That's all. Not exactly revolutionary.
Unfortunately, all the bafflegab tends to obscure the few questions we should be asking about Linux. Should you pay for outside support? (Probably, unless you want to be in the operating system business.) Should you let your in-house developers make changes to the source code? (Probably not, unless you love version-control hell.) Is there any real benefit to having source code? (With it, vendors can't force you to upgrade to the current version just to get a bug fixed — a tactic many users faced when doing their Y2K fixes.) Should I really consider software written piecemeal by thousands of programmers in an anarchic development setting? (Well, you're looking at Windows 2000, aren't you?)
Those aren't questions the mass media is going to answer for an ordinary business audience. They're IT-shop questions. And despite all the hype, hope and hoopla, Linux simply isn't something TV and radio can explain to a mainstream audience in three minutes of sound bites.
Maybe by the next Linux bash, they'll figure that out. And we won't have experts all over the tube explaining to ordinary folks that source code is really more like a movie script — whoops, we're outta time!
Frank Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has been looking for a good way to explain source code for 20 years. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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