February 11, 2007

Why Linux doesn't care about governance...

The Mozilla governance debate is running hot, rejoinders flowing thick and fast. Here is a seriously good riposte by James Donald:

A successful open source project has a large effect on what large numbers of people do. The effect has a large indirect effect on various for-profit ventures, who then proceed to give handouts to the non profit open source project. Thus, for example, linux was the beneficiary of vast amounts of work by engineers employed by corporations who feared that they would be screwed by Microsoft or wintel, and urgently wanted to have an alternative, or, in the case of Sun, had to ensure that their customers had an alternative.

In that case, the big corporations were the good guys, reacting against the dangerous power of a particular big corporation, protecting everyone in the course of protecting themselves.

More nefarious activities are common: For example OpenID is backed by XRI, and tends to do things that are more in the interests of XRI rather than support the objectives of OpenID - but then there is nothing terribly wicked or nefarious about the objectives of XRI.

Getting back to the case in dispute, the various browser responses to phishing, to the internet crisis of identity and security, make more sense as a Verisign business plan than as a response to phishing, and in so doing harm security, in the sense that they are disinclined to take any effective action, for any effective action would compete with the services provided by Verisign.

We don't need to worry about governance with linux, for the interests of the contributors are well aligned - they all want free software ("free" as in "free speech", not just "free" as in "free beer") that does all the things that Microsoft's unfree software does) So we just proclaim Torvalds dictator and let him get on with it. No one cares about linux governance.

Trouble is that some of the contributors to Mozilla want to paid for security, which means that they do not want Mozilla to provide free security - neither in the sense of free speech, nor in the sense of free beer.

And Mozilla really should provide free security.

Now, we might not agree with everything written above ... but James does raise the rather good point that there is a big difference between the Linux community and the Mozilla community.

Superficially, there is tight control over both projects. In the first case by Linus, Grand Vizier and Despot Over all his Kernels and Dominions. In the second, MoFo developers are Most Benevolent and Principled Dictators, Defenders of the Freedom of all our Code in all our Repositories. To paraphrase.

Both despots, both dictators. Here is the difference. Linus only rules over the kernel; which is then fed to 100 or more secondary tier distributors, within the freedom granted by GPL. They then feed it to users.

In contrast, Mozo rules over the whole show. The user interface ("UI") is controlled by the Mozo developers, but not by Linus in his project. For Mozo the money comes flooding in like the spring melt because they have a vast user base wanting to access the lodestone of net commerce: search engines.

For the linux kernel there is no such centralised opportunity, as the UI is controlled at the remote distro level. In practical terms, the Linux commercial opportunity has been outsourced into the free market of Redhat, Ubuntu, Suse, Debian and a hundred others.

The reason that no-one cares about Linux governance is that the very structure of the Linux industry is the governance. The governance issue of regulating benefits and opportunities is solved by placing it were it is best dealt with: in the market place.

Expressed as a principle, Linus says it's ok to be a systems despot, but, please, let the UI go free.

Posted by iang at February 11, 2007 11:34 PM | TrackBack
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