Questioning the Linux Foundation’s credentials

How noble are its motivations, asks Neil McAllister

What do you get if you cross an open source development consortium with an organisation that promotes free standards? Answer: You get a Linux advocacy group. Or so it seems.

On the surface, the union of Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) and the Free Standards Group (FSG) seems like a natural fit. Open standards and open source software are two great ideas that go well together.

But wouldn’t it make more sense to call the merged organisation the Open Source and Standards Lab, or the Free Software and Standards Group? Why did they have to go and call it the Linux Foundation?

On the one hand, it seems a shame that the group should narrow the scope of its activities to focus on a single project. Linux may be the open source poster child du jour, but it’s hardly the only worthwhile project around. In fact, the Free Software Foundation would remind us that most of the software that makes up what we call a “Linux distribution” was never written by Linux kernel developers in the first place.

On the other hand, Linux doesn’t define any open standards. It implements them, sure; but hopefully so do a lot of other operating systems, and even other kinds of software. If your standards activities are limited to what works with Linux, your standards aren’t particularly open.

When you think about it, the newly formed Linux Foundation couldn’t have chosen a worse name. Then again, it’s not hard to see the thought process behind it.

The Linux Foundation wants press. It wants the kind of positive buzz that can only come from brand loyalty. On that score, “open source” and “open standards” don’t pay the bills. “Linux” does.

But wait, there’s more. “For Linux to remain open and attain the greatest ubiquity possible, important services must be provided, including legal protection, standardisation, promotion and collaboration,” reads the mission statement on the Linux Foundation’s website. “The Linux Foundation has been founded to help close the gap between open source and proprietary platforms, while sustaining the openness, freedom of choice and technical superiority inherent in open source software.”

Here we get to the truth. The Linux Foundation isn’t really about open standards and it isn’t about open source. It was “founded to close the gap between open source and proprietary platforms” — in other words, to help Linux compete with Microsoft.

Now, I’m all for a competitive software market. I’m against a Microsoft monopoly. But is this really the most constructive way to carve a niche for Linux in the mainstream software market?

A quick glance at the page describing the Foundation’s board of directors reveals more of the truth. Initially, the board will be made up of representatives of such huge corporations as HP, IBM, Intel and Oracle. They’ll vote to elect new directors this month, but don’t hold your breath waiting for independent developers to be represented. According to the Foundation, the easiest way to get a seat on the board is to become a platinum member, which entails paying to the tune of half a million dollars.

Notably absent from the board, however, is Red Hat. It’s strange that a foundation ostensibly formed to further the best interests of Linux would not include a representative from the leading Linux vendor.

But then again, maybe it’s not so strange — not if you conclude that the Linux Foundation isn’t any kind of philanthropic foundation at all. It’s an industry trade organisation.

As such, it is a unique kind of hybrid organisation, all right — but it’s not the union of open source and open standards that make it one. Rather, it stands as an example of how to combine open source with all the worst aspects of the proprietary commercial software industry. How noble.

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