Linux Apocalypse?

Just a couple of years ago, the scrappy little open source operating system called Linux was being hailed as the next big thing -- and not just by political subversives and ravers, but venture capitalists and corporations who funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into Linux development. This was extraordinary because Linux, and the open source community behind it, are generally associated with exceptionally progressive fiscal ideals.

Linus Torvalds, inventor of Linux, has said that he is content to make a comfortable middle-class salary, and has no intention of pursuing extreme wealth like more typical software impresarios such as Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. Perhaps his modest aspirations are a reason Linux took off among open sourcers: one of the tenets of open source development is volunteerism. People in the open source movement also believe in the free circulation of technical information. For that reason, the code that makes Linux run is available to anyone who wants to see it or modify it. Contrast this spirit of sharing with Microsoft, a company famous for its brutal domination of the market and its refusal to open up its source code.

Once upon a time, many of us thought that open source development projects like Linux (or Apache, or hundreds of others) would defeat the proprietary giants like Microsoft and Sun. Soon, these corporate behemoths would see the light and realize that opening up their source code would result in happiness for all. Engineers could do their jobs more easily. Networks would be stable. Users throughout the land would rejoice, even if they didn't completely understand why. For a while, the big companies believed in Linux too: places like Sun, SGI, IBM, and Dell dumped cash all over anything that was decorated with Linux's cuddly penguin logo.

In preparation for the Linux revolution, code bunnies and turbo geeks alike worked on GNOME, one of the more accepted desktop environments for Linux. Unfortunately, GNOME never really caught on, and popular software packages like Microsoft Office weren't compatible with Linux. The general public, sadly, didn't take to an operating system that is still kind of hard to use if all your experience is with Windows. So, Linux is still mostly popular with techies, who have made Linux the operating system of choice for servers.

As our dreams of converting the people to open source values began to fade a bit, the bottom dropped out of the open source market. After several profitable Linux-related ventures like VALinux and LinuxCare began failing, VCs started shrinking away from buzzwords like "free software" and "open source." Sun cut back on funding for open source development; Dell stopped shipping lots of Linux-compatible boxes.

The economy worsened, and then about a week ago another blow hit the Linux community. The Microsoft anti-trust case will now be settled partly out of court, and already U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has stated that the settlement will not involve breaking up or restructuring the monopolistic corporation. Since much of the fire behind Linux supporters was fueled by the idea that Microsoft could be beaten, this is a great psychological (and economic) blow.

Meanwhile, the already-shaky chip company Transmeta, where Linus Torvalds works as a programmer, suffered another setback. Toshiba dumped its deal to buy chips from Transmeta, and industry insiders are wondering if this could be the final death knell for the formerly white hot company. The startup was trying to compete with chip giant Intel, much the way Linux tried to compete with operating system giant Microsoft. Although Transmeta really doesn't have much to do with Linux per se, there is a symbolic aspect to Transmeta's failures that can't be dismissed.

Is this the last tango for Linux? Is open source a dead end? No. Open source is just headed underground, where it will reproduce virally in the community of developers to whom it always mattered most.

Our hope for open source, and its demise as the market crashed, are reminiscent of what happened to leftist politics during the revolutionary 1960s. One reason radical ideas flourished during the 60s was that it was an era of unprecedented economic boom. People were affluent enough to consider social experiments, to allocate social spending for the poor and disenfranchised, to volunteer their time for political causes. As a result, there was a short burst of passionate radicalism which seemed about to overturn the old, "establishment" ways of doing things. And then the economy tanked in the 70s, and a whole generation of bitter hippies were left wondering where the revolution had gone.

But it wasn't gone. It just went underground. One might even say it remerged, vastly changed, as the open source movement.

Annalee Newitz (linuxrules@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who still loves the GPL. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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