In recent weeks, several sources have portrayed Linux users and the community of open-source software developers as fanatics. This caricature seems now to be the most prevalent alternative to the equally unflattering images of Linux users as computer geeks or pizza-consuming programmers.
For many, the impulse to switch to Linux has indeed required a strong nerve and a willingness to delve into technical minefields. Even with robust distributions — such as Red Hat and SuSE — there are still challenging hardware compatibility problems to navigate.
But the geeky image of Linux is fading quickly. Current desktop implementations of Linux are professional, and the available office applications are up to professional standards. More and more users are finding that Linux provides an effective platform for their private and professional use.
The new caricature portrays Linux enthusiasts as fanatics that have neither interest in nor understanding of the hard realities of the business world. The outside world seems to see these enthusiasts as motivated by a mixture of idealism and a fixed antipathy to all things Microsoft.
As is usually the case, the current caricature of Linux enthusiasts is based on an element of truth. Indeed, those in the open-source world share a sense of community, and there is a distinct sense of being part of a movement. There are ideals and beliefs, and there is a widespread dislike of the dominance of Windows.
The challenge now facing the Linux operating system together with the rest of open-source software is to move into the mainstream of business and IT use, which will require much more than a warm fuzzy feeling about Linux and a strong aversion to the Microsoft monopoly.
For businesses to invest in the cost of ownership, not to mention the cost of migrating, there must be tangible and quantifiable benefits.
A spate of articles and analyst reports present conflicting views on the real cost of moving to Linux. Some of these reports, which some dismiss merely because they are sponsored by Microsoft, point out that there are substantial costs to be borne by organizations that implement a Linux-based infrastructure and desktop environment.
I have noticed that the very same point is made by those who promote Linux. The difference is that the detractors take issue with what they see as the myth of the low cost of Linux, and decisions about IT investments must be based on something more objective than myth.
Carried Away by Enthusiasm
Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, has suggested that the mixture of beliefs, ideals and enthusiasm surrounding Linux represents a greater threat to the hegemony of Microsoft than any conventional competition. There is, no doubt, a growing concern about the threat of open source to certain sectors of the industry.
Recent controversies over intellectual property rights, software patents and the actions of SCO reflect this concern. In that sense, Enderle has a point. But to liken Linux to a young religion, and to describe the underlying concepts as similar to a commune, is to go too far. The use of emotionally charged words is a way of smuggling in a dismissal of all that Linux represents.
Enderle concludes his piece by urging IT decision-makers to consider fact rather than belief. At first sight, this is the kind of comment that demands universal assent. Let us remain objective about things and not be carried away by enthusiasm. And, by all means, let us avoid the rather more disturbing fanaticism and religious fervor of those who are allegedly motivated by hatred of Microsoft.
Now, there are not many of us in business who would boast of basing our decisions on beliefs rather than on facts. But let’s pause for a moment: What are these facts that are supposed to be the basis of our business decisions?
Leaving aside technical issues, the most objective we can be is to focus on costs. The problem is that once we start to penetrate beyond all the posturing, we discover a whole realm of complexities, suggesting that any analyst’s savings estimations must be taken strictly in context. In such environments, the facts are quite difficult to come by. They certainly don’t appear in polite company without a hefty dose of interpretation at their side.
Fact or Belief?
Putting it differently, why do we think that facts (by which we usually mean cost assessments) are more significant than beliefs (by which we usually mean principles, human values and a long-term view of self interest).
I happen to believe that the concentration of economic — and therefore political, legal and cultural — power in the hands of a few global corporations is dangerous for the future of freedom. I also believe that such concentration of power leads to abuse, and therefore a long-term erosion of my own — and my company’s — economic liberties.
The dichotomy between fact and belief is actually rather tired, and when we start to unpack what we actually mean, the distinction becomes somewhat blurred. Although I am not convinced, I would accept that — given the present trading conditions — there is an argument to be made that Microsoft products could be more cost effective than Linux.
The problem is that when we look further ahead, our beliefs about how social and economic systems work, our beliefs about the future and our beliefs about principles color our view of the facts.
Back to Belief
So I am back to belief. And I believe that some facts are more important than short-term benefits that accrue from conforming to the current monopoly. I think history supports the view that, in the long term, monopolies have a negative effect on wealth creation.
For myself, I am willing to risk the inconvenience and — if certain detractors are correct in their arguments — a higher real cost of using open source to secure the kind of future I wish for. Mind you, I still believe that Linux is a better financial proposition, even in the short term.
There you go, those beliefs are hard to budge, so Microsoft had better watch out — and SCO, too. Battles about belief are bloody affairs.
Paul Towlson teaches Theory of Knowledge and Information Technology at the International School of Basel, Switzerland. In addition to keeping a Web log, Towlson consults in business development, knowledge management and organizational culture.