The attitude of openness

by Jono Bacon

In the early days of Linux, life was simple. Hackers hacked their code, interested parties tried to run it, and the vast majority of people had never even heard of this Linux Operating System. To the world, Linux was merely a hobbyists fascination that few understood and even less cared about. Time did not stand still, and the hackers continued to hack and the interested parties continued to understand, and before we knew it we had a system that had a real and viable commercial potential. This potential was subsequently realised with companies such as Red Hat, SuSE and others creating businesses around the software, and these organisations have gone on to make real and measurable wins.


There is little doubt in my mind that the biggest challenge that face Linux and potential migration is attitude. Prejudice, assumption and intertia are the main bretheren that we need to combat, but in many ways the challenge is applicable to those inside the community as well as outside it. If the Linux community want the outside world to change their attitudes to our software and the potential for an alternative, the community itself needs to also sit back and re-evaluate common attitudes and views on the industry and competition.


Of all the potential attitude issues, there are certain primary problems that need to be identified and considered. The first is our attitude to Microsoft. It really pains me to see people referring to Microsoft as Micro$oft and citing them as this big and evil organisation that is out to claim our children and take over the world in a boiling pit of fury. Microsoft are a company out there to make money, and they pursue their business as a commercial software company. In this regard they are no different to Red Hat, IBM, Sun, SuSE, Mandrake and others in their focus to bring in profit. Microsoft obviously have their differences in how they actually do their business, and some of these practices do leave a lot to be desired. The key point here however is that there are a great many organisations out there that could be considered less than stellar citizens in the IT community; we just need to identify the problems with these companies and deal with them in a professional, sane way. I see no need to resort to schoolyard jibes behind the bikeshed about our competitors.


Another point to make about Microsoft is what we can learn from them. Although they are without a doubt a dominant company, and some degree of their dominant position will be from their dominant practices, Microsoft got to the position they are in now because of one simple reason - people like their products. Yes, people may have liked their products many moons ago but were locked in to their upgrade cycle, but Microsoft do have an impressive pulling power to bring new people over to their stable of offerings. What is interesting to note is how they manage to bring over these customers with products that are in many cases inferior, or where an alternative product is available for a fraction of the cost. How do Microsoft bring over these customers to their camp?


To answer can be found within their own attitude to their customers. Microsoft are very much an outcome focussed company; they create products and solutions that are based on practical, real world problems that need to be solved by their customers. At the recent Get The Facts roadshow, I went along to the Manchester leg of the tour to interview a couple of guys from Microsoft for one of the publications I write for (Linux User & Developer magazine). Before the interview took place I sat in a number of presentations from chirpy pro-Microsoft customers who are pleased with their Microsoft solutions. I am confident that these customers were not puppeteered by Microsoft, and the overriding message was that Microsoft helped them solve their problem practically. The focus was certainly more on the problem domain as opposed to the software domain; Microsoft simply directed their software to the customer in a way that could solve the problem in hand.


This primary focus on the problem is something that we need to really shape and refine in the Linux community, and it is the responsibility of the commercial sector to really push solutions as a business model. This kind of use case based methodology has even applied to different free software projects, and this is the right way forward. We need to identify what the user/customer needs to achieve, and how to achieve this goal with the easiest and most elegant solution.


With any products, service or organisation that is hot on the heels of the traditionally dominant entity, we need to learn from the leader as well as challenging the leader. A bright, young athlete will learn from an Olympic athlete, but will also want challenge the views and propose a better application of their craft. The core benefit of being in the mentored position as opposed to being the mentor is that we can identify the benefits and trash the disadvantages. We are all well aware of the bad choices Microsoft and others have made in the industry, and we have the opportunity to prevent these bad choices being made again.


FUD


Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) is a major problem in IT. We are all familiar of the kind of tactics used by large corporations to scare customers about the competition, but FUD is fundamentally a two way process. Companies such as SCO and Microsoft do spread FUD about Linux, but certain portions of the Linux community also spread FUD about other solutions, and this negative rambling is a bad thing, no matter who it comes from. In many cases, the resorting of FUD tactics is simply because the vendor has a lack of faith that their solution is the best solution.


I am confident in Linux and Open Source, and I am confident with the different ways that our technology is being used. One of the great joys of my job is in seeing how different people approach problems in different ways, and the technology is ultimately flexible. With this confidence in the technology breeds a sense that FUD tactics are ultimately pointless if the FUD works but the software does not. If after the lights, camera, action and premier the show is held together with chewing gum, no one is going to go for the viewing. The challenge is to change this Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt into Fact, Understanding and Definition.


One of the many challenges that face the community is with regards to a single unified voice. For all we have some incredibly talented and forward thinking members of our community, we also have a raft of trolls; ignorant to any view but their own unbalanced mis-representation of an un-truth. Some may see this as a fault, but this is a factor of life in any community. In our global village we have some fantastic contributors that keep our community ticking over and getting better, but there are a number of other villages out there that are missing their idiots. This is the core difference between a singular vendor and ourselves. Microsoft can send out a memo with the company view, and irrespective of whether some people in the company agree or disagree, the company must have a singular vision if it wants to be seen as credible.


Honesty


One of the biggest challenges that I face as a writer is getting honesty out of people. Sometimes I need to weed it out via probing questions, sometimes I need to research it on the net, and sometimes I need to compare contrasting content to identify the truth. Despite this challenge, I will never ever stoop to the tabloid methods of playing one person against another in an underhand way, and my idealistic side often hopes that the interviewee will provide an honest and frank response with little intervention from myself; rarely does this honesty and frankness shine through.


This is an area where the leaders of the community and the leaders of the commercial sector of the community need to really take note. The traditional method of wrapping up statements to the press and your customers with legalese and a restrictive official tongue has problems within the Linux sector. Business who are involved with free software simply cannot cover over the cracks in the same way that closed source companies can hide internal gaffs from prying eyes outside of the walls of their PR department. Many business representatives seem to be unable to accept liability or the fact that they don't know how to answer a question. As we head further into a business sector that is driven by openness and clarity, the organisations that service the sector could really capitalise on trust by being frank and honest in any correspondence with the press and their customers. This kind of trust is often found in small local companies who provide a great, personal and honest service, why should it not apply to large organisations?


As we head forward into a new breed of IT choice, our attitude's can determine how we shape our future. I have ultimate confidence that our technology can take us there, but the true challenge is determining if our will can take us there.

What do you think? Any more suggestions to make? Any comments to give? Share your thoughts below...


2 Comments

steltenpower
2004-06-30 16:29:55
open source for entrepreneurs
something i wrote
blackhole
2004-07-01 16:04:17
Some good points, but ...
The author makes some good points, but some of his comments about Microsoft seem off base. I have hated Microsoft so long, I cannot remember why I started hating them (but they never do anything to make me change my mind). I hated them long before I even heard of Linux. While there are other factors, I am convinced that the main reason Microsoft is in its current monopoly position is that it inherited (stole?) it from the monopoly IBM used to have. MS would never be in its present position had IBM not made the mistake of using them to get their PC's original OS. I never know whether to laugh or gag when people claim it is because people like Microsofts products so much.


Linux is not perfect, and by all means, lets have honest discussions. And the continual "schoolyard taunts" about M$ (oops) can sometimes get old. But Microsoft is so obnoxious that it is sometimes too much fun to resist.