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Pros, Priests and Zealots: The Three Faces of Linux

By Rob Enderle
Oct 20, 2003 1:32 PM PT

Last week, in writing the column "Zen and the Art of Being Happy with Microsoft," I began to see parallels between Microsoft's image problem and my own view of the Linux community. Much as the Linux community sees just one aspect of Microsoft, the bad one, I tend to see just one aspect of the Linux community.

Pros, Priests and Zealots: The Three Faces of Linux

Generally speaking, our view of a person, initiative or company often comes from select perceptions. If you read Slashdot, for example, even regular participants seem to comment that much of the discussion there is not based on what people have personally perceived but on what they have read about others people's perceptions. Often, even these perceptions are based on second- or third-hand knowledge. My impression is that the vast majority of folks who are critical of my own columns have actually done a very good job avoiding actually reading them.

But just as many perceptions are colored by the opinions of what appears to be a large number of uninformed individuals, my perceptions -- and the perceptions of several of us in the media -- are colored in much the same way, and probably by some of the same people. So I thought it might be useful to share how my perception of Linux has been created over the last several months by a minority of those who back Linux. In reading this column, many of you might see similarities to how you formed impressions about Apple, Linux and even Microsoft.

EDITOR'S NOTE (February 2, 2004): See Rob Enderle's new column "The MyDoom Effect: Crossing the Line into Terrorism" for a discussion of the MyDoom attack on SCO Group.

In thinking through this issue, I've come to learn there are three general types of folks who write to me about open-source software: Pros, Priests and Zealots. My opinions of open-source software have been formed, to a large extent, on the basis of the activities of the Zealots. As you read this, put yourself in the position of an analyst or journalist faced with meeting similar people and ask yourself which group would have the greatest impact on your beliefs.

Linux Pros

The Pros are platform agnostic. They just want to get the job done, and when they write to me they simply want to make sure I'm well-founded in my position before they take what I've said and use it to back a decision.

The Pros generally see things like the SCO legal action as someone else's problem and have done their best to distance themselves from any related issues. They don't love Linux or Windows. They are simply focused on finding the right tool for the job.

Rather than picking and promoting a single platform, these Pros are the most likely to tell me of things I could have been more critical of on both platforms. Also, they actually spend time discussing what they like about both platforms. These Pros are balanced and opinionated but not religious. In other words, these are people I would either like to work for or have work for me.

These folks will spend an inordinate amount of time helping me understand the daily problems they face and helping me see what is important to them. If they favor any platform, it is often BSD because it is simply less distracting than any of the other platforms while retaining many of the advantages associated with Unix and open-source software.

In addition to being Linux or BSD experts, the Pros often call themselves Windows experts and generally live in mixed environments -- not because of some diversity driver, but because the environment grew up this way and is running just fine, and because fixing something that isn't broken isn't a priority for them.

Linux Priests

The Priests are nice people, but no matter what the question is, open-source software and Linux are the answers. Discussions with Linux Priests are more like one-sided lectures than give-and-take conversations. Priests can write page upon page of dogma, referencing link after link of online material, and they tend to be long on beliefs but short on facts.

What facts the Priests do have seem to be filtered through their belief structure so that even if the evidence would support a contrary argument, they will always argue that the evidence supports only their own position.

Priests do work at being nice to nonbelievers, much like an actual priest might work at being nice to an atheist who "just doesn't get it" but who must get it to go to heaven.

To Linux Priests, Microsoft is Satan. These Priests won't even acknowledge the possibility that their own community could be guilty of similar bad behavior. This group is defined by its faith, and that faith runs deep. Linux priests aren't violent or nasty, and they appear to be competent in their jobs, but they are incredibly biased and don't seem to recognize it.

Linux Zealots

The Linux Zealots generally hide behind phony names on the Internet -- often, in fact, names of male body parts. The Zealots are rude and crude, and the sentence "two beers short of a six-pack" defines them well.

It is not clear whether the Zealots actually believe in Linux and open-source software or are just being antiestablishment. They seem to live by three simple rules:

  • Attack first. If you kill the messenger, you can always apologize later.
  • If someone disagrees with you, that person must be a crook.
  • Behaving badly -- by attacking, lying or bullying -- is only bad if someone on the other side does it.

    Many of the Zealots seem to be unemployed. It is hard to believe that they can stay with any one company for more than a few days by behaving as badly as they do. Were I an IT executive, the apparent fact that these Zealots are walking human-resource disasters would probably keep me up at night.

    I've watched these people fabricate stories about my own job history and events that I've written about -- as they were happening. These Zealots have been the primary reason that I've come to believe SCO will likely win its lawsuit -- because if the Zealots are lying about facts I know to be true, they must be lying about facts I don't know about.

    This group owes its roots to similar groups that existed around OS/2 and the Apple platforms. The Zealots are generally seen as being part of the cause when the related platform fails or goes into decline. The Linux Zealots are similar to religious zealots and political extremists.

    Zealots and Terrorists

    I have a hard time seeing the Zealots as any different from terrorists because of the nature of their threats. I expect one of them -- or perhaps a group of them -- will go too far at some point and do significant damage to the open-source movement, the ongoing litigation with SCO or their employers.

    I strongly believe that if September 11th showed us anything, it was that zealots of any movement represent a huge risk to that movement because they do not consider the repercussions of their actions.

    In the end, I think we are all defined by how we are perceived. Our perception is 100 percent of our reality and doesn't have to have any connection to facts to be real to us. Perhaps more of us -- and I include myself in this comment -- should look underneath our perceptions and challenge their foundations regularly.

    Whether it is in the Microsoft or open-source software communities, there are people who have good hearts and honest motives. Helping those people to succeed -- while mitigating zealots regardless of where they work or whom they support -- is in the best interest of everyone.

    Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a company founded on the concept of providing a unique perspective on personal technology products and trends.

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