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March 23, 2009
The Linux Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 2007 to promote Linux, recently assumed control of the linux.com domain. This is a good move, as it helps consolidate the image of Linux, making it easier for new users to find and understand the operating system–in other words, it brings greater centralization to Linux, which is badly needed if free software is to become ubiquitous on the desktops of the world.
In general, centralization has no place within the ideological foundations of the free-software movement. If code is open-source, there can be no monopoly over it, since those who disagree with a decision are free to fork the project in the direction they see fit.
This radical decentralization of open-source development is one of Linux’s greatest strengths. It promotes creativity and innovation on a scale impossible in the proprietary world. It also allows free software to meet the demands of niche markets and picky users who might be ignored by closed-source developers.
Decentralization, however, comes with an obvious price. Experienced Linux geeks might enjoy the hundreds of distributions and dozens of desktop environments, window managers, web browsers and so on from which they can choose when deciding how to run their computers. But for users new to the free-software world, the wide array of choices leads to more confusion than satisfaction.
Nothing illustrates the negative aspects of decentralization better than the difficulty of finding a clear definition of Linux and a link for downloading it. When I google ‘linux’–which is presumably the first step taken by most people hoping to give the operating system a try–the top search result links to linux.org, a site sorely in need of updates to both its aesthetics and content.
linux.org’s home page still mentions the SCO v. IBM case, which hasn’t been news in several years. Users are told that disk partitioning is a requirement for installing Linux, which hasn’t been true since the development of wubi. The ‘distributions’ section of the site assumes that visitors know the difference between Red Hat and Debian-based systems. Together, the outmoded theme and content of linux.org serve only to confuse and scare potential new users.
A search for ‘download linux’ leads to a list of distributions on linux.com that is similarly lacking in friendliness towards Linux neophytes. Instead of explaining in plain terms which distributions are most popular and designed for ease-of-use, the page is filled with technical jargon and offers no clear guidelines on which version of Linux might be best suited to a new user’s needs. Fixing problems like this should be among the first priorities of the Linux Foundation, now that it owns linux.com.
The confusion with which potential Linux users have to struggle just to figure out what exactly Linux is highlights the need for a centralized, straightforward, easy-to-find site that represents Linux to those outside the free-software community. The Linux Foundation’s acquisition of linux.com will, I hope, become this resource, forcing other sites high in Google’s rankings either to update their content or sink to the bottom of search results.
There is no doubt disagreement about how best to present Linux, which distributions to recommend and so on. Debate like this is healthy, and reflects the strong ideological diversity that makes free software thrive.
But if the the open-source movement wants to reach a broader audience, it needs to create a more centralized image, and present that image to the world in a centralized location. This means competing projects will have to work together to promote Linux, and probably make some sacrifices. Unless the diversity and decentralization of the free-software community is reined in, however, it will remain obscure and out of the reach of most mainstream users.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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