Open source at a crossroads

Linux is here now and forever. Anyone who takes even a cursory look around the IT departments at any large company will find some representation of the open-source operating system. In truth, the current debate is not over the validity of the Linux development model but the extent to which it will be deployed in the enterprise.

Thanks to companies such as IBM Corp., Oracle Corp., and SAP AG, Linux is quickly moving past its somewhat limited file-server role to now include all classes of production systems. And what is even more amazing is that IT managers are talking about their Linux implementations with pride rather than trying to hide them, lest they be reprimanded for veering from the accepted corporate standard of the moment.

Although all of these good things have been happening, an interesting phenomenon has begun to take place in the industry itself: IBM and the rest of the vendors that support Linux have been slowly distancing Linux from the rest of the projects in the open-source community.

IBM, SAP, and Oracle gladly embrace Linux the operating system as a counter to Microsoft in the marketplace. But none of them have the slightest interest in other open-source projects that could threaten their domains. So projects such as Interbase, MySQL, PostgreSQL databases, Tomcat, Zope, and Enhydra application server and other applications that sit above the basic Apache Web server must fend for themselves.

When you think about it, this hypocritical stance plays into the hands of Microsoft Corp., which can point to it as a telling example of how these companies only support Linux in their own business interests -- not as something they truly believe in because of its technological value. Furthermore, what IBM and these companies are saying to the true believers in the open-source programming model is that they are on their own beyond the core Linux and Apache offerings that IBM currently embraces. After all, these companies have multibillion-dollar software empires they need to protect. So it is understandable that these companies would prefer to limit their support to specific products rather than the open-source development philosophy.

Frankly, the executives at these companies don't believe the open-source community as a whole has the technological wherewithal to do anything substantial beyond Linux and Apache. Of course, the reason this may be the case is that most of the people involved in open-source development understandably have had a tendency to focus their efforts on the operating system. But maybe the time has come for that to change. IBM is devoting a lot of resources to Linux, which in theory means more people outside of Big Blue could devote their time and energy to higher-level middleware and applications.

The open-source community is at a crossroads. If it continues to focus only on Linux, then its work will ultimately be another pawn in the ongoing war between IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft. But if it can do meaningful work beyond the OS, then what is today -- just a movement -- will truly become a revolution.

If you believe in open source, then you realize that a lot more work must be done. If you just believe in Linux, then congratulations -- the war is over. Come in from the hills and get a regular job with benefits in corporate America like everybody else, because you're working for the man anyway.

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