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Open Source Software: (slightly skeptical) Annotated Chronicle


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Most important

December 1998

[December 26,1998] Why Open Source Does Not Work

A really anti open-source article. Weak and not very convincing, but some arguments deserve attention because they produces a very interesting discussion at the slashdot (see SlashdotOpen Source and Change )

The real economic question of the OS model is how is money made, and who is making the money. Who is being rewarded financially for the enormous development effort? The open source initiative claims that there are at least four different models that allow someone to reap rewards. Oddly, it is not mentioned that it is not necessarily the people who did the development work that gain financially.

The third case, "Widget Frosting", sounds completely practical. The premise that hardware makers produce open source software so that the OS development community will work for free to produce better drivers and interface tools for their hardware products. It sounds great on the surface, especially for the company that produces the hardware: they get free drivers and do not have to pay for expensive developers. The OS community wins by getting presumably stable drivers and tools. What is not mentioned is the reason hardware makers usually don’t do this is because they do not want to reveal trade secrets regarding their hardware design. Production of efficient drivers requires an intimate knowledge of the hardware the driver is for. It is almost always the case that it is in the hardware developers’ best interest to keep their hardware secrets close to home. This also brings up the question of why isn’t hardware "open"? So much for the frosting case.

The final case, "Accessorizing", is similar to the first, but throws in the idea of selling books and complete systems with the open source software, and other accessories as well. It is obvious that selling books qualifies as support, and that it really belongs in the first case. The idea of selling computer systems, T-Shirts, dolls, again begs the question: "Who is making the money?" As with the first case, it is not necessarily the people who have done the development work. Additionally, the question of how much money can be made selling books, t-shirts, mugs, etc, is never answered. O’Reilly Associates is frequently used as an example  to be a company who has made money using this case. The reader should notice that O’Reilly Associates are not the people doing the development work. Indeed, it is never asked why all the O’Reilly books are not available for free or at least at manufacturing cost?   This also brings up the question of why isn't book production "open"? Perhaps they are waiting to see if they could sell enough O’Reilly T-Shirts to pay their bills. So much for the accessories.

November 1998

...the discussion of Linux among people you would expect to be its champions, such as programmers and computer-security experts who disdain Microsoft and work to build, maintain and protect sites and systems that use Linux, is more nuances — and less glowing. When I contacted one resolute Microsoft-hater, who works at what is probably the Internet’s busiest Linux-using commercial site, he replied immediately via e-mail that he was willing to detail Linux’s numerous shortcomings, but only anonymously: “I work with all these Linux zealots who have nearly fired me over my pokings at Linux.”    

Most of Linux’s failings, according to my expert witness, are about what you would expect from a free operating system that exists in almost as many versions as there are people who use it. (Like Unix, Linux keeps mutating because the source code is available to anyone who wants to tinker with it.)      “Linux isn't secure and it isn't stable,” my informant writes, with his usual bracing disdain for grammar and punctuation. “its a moving target that never really gets out of beta. sure people run production sites on Linux. I know a lot of these people. they don't get much sleep and have grown opaque from the lack of sunlight. I have admin'd large Linux shops. they require huge amounts of admin overhead, and if you want shit to really work you are going to spend alot of time manually fixing things. the number of outstanding security holes and lack of stable functionality is monumental.”

... Discussions of Linux’s weaknesses can be found on several Web sites, along with programs used by hackers to attack Linux sites. To outsiders, many of the exchanges between devotees of BSD, Solaris or other Unix variations sound opaque or shrill: (“It will be a cold day at the equator before L. Torvalds sets aside his ego for the sake of someone else’s better ideas.”).      But much of the discussion is serious and alarming. Linux, according to these users, has serious security problems and a tendency to break down. The overriding theme in all of these messages and warnings is clear: If Red Hat and other Linux promoters hope to market an operating system that meets the demands of today’s market — to wit, a system that can run around the clock without faltering — their product is a long way from the Holy Grail.

Cathedrals, Bazaars and the Town Council

Pulling on one end of the rope by Jordan Hubbard, The FreeBSD Project

... all is rosy and wonderful and this is basically another feel-good editorial about the magic of free software, right? Wrong, unfortunately...

To illustrate just how serious those problems can get, let's go back about 8 years to a period known as the "GUI wars" - a time of all-out battle between OpenLook, Motif and a host of lesser contenders. For those who were "there", the event probably needs no further description - the very mention of the GUI wars is enough to send cold shivers down the spine of even the most hardened Unix devotee. Not only did these wars cost Unix the desktop, they cost it a significant number of the few remaining ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) that it had....

The GUI wars also only added to an already untenable situation brought on by the SYSV/UCB split (AIX/HP-UX vs. Ultrix/SunOS etc), another ugly chapter which I won't go into here, making the typical ISV's life a real porting hell in return for access to a market which was already dwindling in comparison to the booming Windows market. If it were at all possible for the Unix market to sabotage itself more effectively during that period, I'm not sure how it could have been accomplished...

...Well, first there was the matter of Ego (spelled with a capital E). Everyone wanted to be the one to "own" the standard for how the GUI on this nifty new X Window System thing would look, and the dominant corporate players which eventually emerged also decided that they wanted to either sell their technology or keep it proprietary and distribute it only with their own workstations....

The X Window System itself was popular principally because it was a free and open standard with a non-aggressive copyright (you could productize it if you wished without being compelled to give the source away, helping to get it past the usual corporate legal department blockades without a fuss) and it was highly portable - I remember being highly chuffed that I could now use the same window system on the IBM PC/RT, Sun 3/50 and DEC MicroVAX machines in my office, a real luxury at the time. The people who wanted to create follow-on standards which they alone controlled, on the other hand, were simply not positioning themselves to take advantage of the X user community's rapid growth, nor could they leverage the work of all those potential volunteer programmers while the sources were being kept under lock and key, so to speak.

NIH was also a big factor, nobody liking anyone else's standard and deciding that a perfect standard was far preferable to having any standard (de-facto or not) at all. Of course, no such degree of perfection was ever achieved and the greater good was sacrificed in pursuit of short-term gains which never even really materialized - the opportunity for a effective and open standard was not only thrown away, it was thrown away for nothing. Thus ended the first age of Unix, many (including myself) believing that this was quite possibly The End since its community of developers, while highly capable tacticians, had proved to be abominable strategists and seemed to be winning battles in order to lose wars with depressing frequency.

Wind the clock forward to today, almost a decade later, and we find many of those things happening again and for exactly the same reasons. Don't get me wrong - it is a perfectly natural human desire to form clans and proudly wear the clan colors on Robert the Bruce Day, or whatever, diversity and competition being good things which encourage innovation and inspire people to greater heights of productivity. When you add Rampaging Egos to the mix, however, things get messy very quickly as the various clans decide that they want to be *the* clan, the only ones in line when the awards for best clan colors or most unique sporran are being handed out. Before long, rival clans are firing flaming arrows at one another and launching raids into each other's camps, generally making life difficult all around for a lot of folks who would really rather just get on with the business of living.

So it is somewhat today in the world of free software. Even though any marginally sane person would be appalled at the sight of two organizations like C.A.R.E and the International Red Cross fighting one another for the privilege of feeding starving children in Africa, for some reason the same behavior seems OK if it's just a bunch of people who write free software doing it. I don't mean to equate the process of feeding starving children with that of writing free software, far from it, but they're both "benevolent activities" which one would certainly hope could transcend any rivalries in carrying out their good works.

NIH is also still alive and well, many people choosing to do the same work over (and over) again just because it wasn't someone from *their* clan who wrote it or they have some deep-seated prejudice against anything done by clans who put green before red in their kilts - it's simply ludicrous a lot of the time! More importantly, the larger picture is being lost again, just as the entire Unix world is getting a second chance at life (a privilege which isn't usually afforded to software of this nature - once it dies once, it generally stays dead). The larger picture that people are losing sight of is that we're all truly in this together and, even if we don't explicitly go out of our way to help one another, at the very least we shouldn't be doing our damnedest to kick the crutches out from under one another.

A good example of keeping sight of the larger picture is FreeBSD's attitude towards its Linux emulation. It's not only very important to us that FreeBSD continues to run Linux binaries effectively, it's also what we suggest to those ISVs who are coming back somewhat cautiously to this "new" Unix market and obviously want to maximize their gains while minimizing risk. We tell them to port to Linux and not FreeBSD, even though we'd certainly love to have native binaries for anything and everything, and, by telling them to port to Linux first (or at all), we are giving them the best advice on how to get access to the widest possible segment of the free software market, one which includes but is not limited to us. That is the kind of "what is best for *all* the clans?" thinking I actively try to promote and essentially why I am taking the time out to write this editorial.

After 5 years of intermittent warfare, not just between the Linux/BSD camps but also within the various Linux and *BSD camps themselves (serving only to prove that *any* clan can and will fight another, even when they're all related :-), it's also not going to be one giant hug fest from now on just because people like me stand up and say that everyone really ought to get along - life's not that simple. What we can do, however, is to continue to *strongly* promote any and all ties between the various free software groups and also actively encourage users to familiarize themselves with each and every one of the various types of free software out there, whether they're currently "pledged" to a given cause or not. Not only will this experience help to shatter some of the walls of mistrust and general acrimony between the various clans, but it can also benefit those who are firmly convinced that they wish to stick with a certain one.

- Jordan

(see also Gnome/KDE debate -- Problems with the Qt Free Edition License -- NNB)

Yes, we really do want to use Free Software.

...We are building a large distributed system (about 200 processors over a 20 mile region) using Linux and Interbase only. Recently, a consultant hired by our client popped up with the questions I have heard soooo much about:

  1. Do you really want to base your system on "freeware?"
  2. There is no technical support, how will you get questions answered?
  3. Who are you going to blame?

Fortunately, my (Government) customer has had such a bad time with NT over the past couple of years, the questions were not even forwarded to us for review. The customer was happy to provide the following answers directly to the consultant:

  1. You bet, the quality of code is too high to ignore. By the way it isn't freeware, it's open source.
  2. We have given up calling Microsoft for support. Their support people seem to be incapable of answering technical questions that are deeper than simple "how do I boot my computer" questions. As far as we are concerned Microsoft does not support its product. The support we have received for Linux has been the best we have ever experienced from any vendor...
  3. Since Linux is very reliable, our trial systems were 100% operational from day one, the issue of blame doesn't surface. However, our experience with NT (SP4) gave us some insight into the "who to blame" mentality.

The customer has really begun to despise Microsoft with their lack of support and buggy operating systems. The customer's primary server is operational and has a zero item bug list, except in the operating system (NT). Since our overall strategy is to build the entire "second phase" system from Linux, we have the task of porting the existing server code to Linux, a task that ordinarily would take a low priority since a working server already exists.

The customer has overridden our own prioritization and requested that the Linux port be completed ASAP. Two reasons:

  1. At least twice a week the NT machine crashes or starts to behave strangely and a reboot is required.
  2. Remote system administration cannot be performed on the NT box so we have to talk the customer through troubleshooting instead of simply logging into their boxes directly from our site.

Since this customer now has about 30 Linux machines working in remote, hostile environments and those machines NEVER go down, one can understand their desire to get the NT -> Linux upgrade completed soon...

Unbeknownst to the checkout clerk ringing up a pair of slacks, Linux will replace DOS as the operating system at Jay Jacobs stores nationwide next year.

The clothing retailer last week became the latest commercial user to adopt Linux, the poster child of the open-source software movement.

Starting immediately, Jay Jacobs will deploy an application suite on Linux in its 115 stores and at the company's headquarters. Scheduled to be completed by the end of next year, the project will replace a number of antiquated, homegrown DOS systems that use the Paradox database.

The new application suite was developed by Apropos Retail Management Systems Inc., which said it will save around $1,000 per site by using Linux, and will not have to pay an operating system vendor for a site license. Jay Jacobs said it will save in the "hundreds" of dollars per installation.

"Cost savings are not the point," said Amy Wohl, president of Wohl & Associates. "If a company spends half a million dollars on a customized software program, a $10,000 savings on the OS isn't the point." Rather, she said, Linux achieves what the fractious Unix vendors have so far failed to deliver: a single code base that runs across multiple platforms.


October 1998

Politburo Or Anarchy? by Jordan K. Hubbard

The Linux Storm

So what are these forces and conditions? First, every wide spread alternative social movement requires a powerful, even obvious, impetus against which to react: in the Reformation it was the Roman Catholic Church. In the early days of the Internet, it was IBM and mainframe hegemony. Today it is Microsoft. Just as the German Reformation enfranchised specific groups previously disaffected (specifically, Luther and the German princes), the Internet empowered individuals and groups previously outside the traditionally well funded technocracy that supported and in turn was nurtured by IBM. Linux has been propelled by the same forces. Currently, a major share of commercial software resources is concentrated around Microsoft products like a large low pressure area. However, such a coalescence of power and influence disenfranchises many for whom high cost and restrictive licenses (lack of freedom really) prevent full and easy access to computing resources. So alternative paths are sought. Like the weather, alternatives may appear randomly and then dissipate. Typically, an additional sustaining force, an opposing low pressure area, is required. For Luther this pressure was provided by the German princes, for the early days of the Internet it was provided by ARPA, and for Linux, it has been provided by the Internet community itself. In the case of Linux, the Internet community desperately needed a competent OS platform. AT&T had shut out many Unix users with restrictive licenses and high fees. UC Berkeley had crippled BSD by removing all vendor proprietary code which adapted it to the underlying hardware: you could study it but not run it! Many saw a potential in Andy Tanenbaum's Minix to counterbalance an increasingly unfree Unix. But Minix was incomplete, did not have critical mass and its source distribution became too restrictive. These conditions inspired the community OS effort, initially derived from Minix, which produced Linux. Linux became readily available and increasingly capable. When it aligned with FSF licensing and could support the powerful GNU tools as well as run on a wide range of inexpensive hardware, a truly useful operating system platform was born. The Internet community finally had a way to run a fully networked Unix cheaply and reliably with no strings attached.

Linux appeared almost randomly on the scene but quickly gathered into a well organized storm because it had a powerful force to react against. It also had a sponsor.

Therefore, the Linux "Bazaar" is not simply a loose collection of vendors and other proponents, motivated only by mutual recognition. The "Bazaar" really operates on a larger stage. When forces of the larger stage organize around a dominant restrictive group, a reactionary force is generated in the remaining community. Over time, this reactive force propels various alternatives. If one or more of these alternatives can find support (the Internet community in the case of Linux), then a new "movement" is born which is sustained and even enriched by the powerful forces of the larger stage. Ironically the more dominant Microsoft becomes, the more powerful the reactive forces become, and the more fuel is fed to movements such as Linux. If an unencumbered BSD had been available earlier running on inexpensive Intel hardware, BSD might have become the seed for this storm. But the same drama would have unfolded: thesis and antithesis on a dialectic stage whose imperative will persist until Microsoft runs out of energy or dissipates its focus. Microsoft has only to look over its shoulder at the cycle of hegemony and superannuation revealed by a once almost omnipotent old technocrat: IBM.

 Beyond the Cathedral Beyond The Bazaar by Jonathan Eunice

...three paths to getting up and running with Linux: the hard way, the most popular way and the easy way. First, I set up Debian GNU/Linux on my laptop. The Debian distribution is utterly free and totally non-commercial and eschews all but the most basic new-user hand-holding. Second, I installed the market leader, Red Hat 5.1, on my main workstation. And finally, I obtained a review copy of a VA Research Linux PC, preinstalled with all kinds of user-friendly goodies. It was obvious from the beginning that no sane person would recommend installing Debian GNU/Linux to anyone who hadn't already evinced some serious hacker tendencies. There's a certain sick satisfaction to be derived from attempting to do something the hardest possible way, but it sure isn't a fair test of Linux's usability. Red Hat, however, is acclaimed for its easy installation, and the newest release, 5.1, has been widely heralded as the easiest ever. Yet even so, new users attempting to make the transition from Windows are likely to be taken aback by the convoluted steps necessary to correctly partition their hard drive for use with Linux. And even if they make it past that step, what then? Red Hat CEO Bob Young claims that the bulk of its sales is generated by non-Unix users. I'm skeptical. As the Red Hat installation manual makes clear, familiarity with basic Unix concepts is required to make any effective use of Red Hat Linux. Page 8 of the manual even recommends purchasing a book on Unix. This is good advice -- but it's not what Windows 95 users looking for an alternative to Microsoft will want to hear. But installing any new operating system is often filled with pitfalls. How many average users, whose main interest in a computer is running a word processor and getting their e-mail, are ever going to attempt such an overhaul?

Surely the best test of Linux's usability is to test-drive a brand new computer with the operating system already installed -- preferably with some kind of handy-dandy graphical user interface like KDE set to go? I got to Tetris just fine, but my block-manipulating joy dissipated almost immediately as soon as I began my very next task -- installing WordPerfect for Linux from a Red Hat CD-ROM. It should have been simple. But it wasn't. To access the files on a CD-ROM in a Unix system, one must first "mount" the CD-ROM. KDE offered no obvious way to do this. In the end, I had to retreat to a command prompt and type in an arcane string of commands sure to be utterly unintelligible to a Windows 95 user. I enjoyed solving the problem -- which, to a Unix aficionado, would have been quite trivial. But accessing the CD-ROM should not require typing "mount -t iso9660 /dev/cdrom /mnt." Such problems are far from insuperable; indeed, at the rate at which things change in the Linux world, they could well be solved within months. But at this moment, it's clear to me that Linux is not yet an alternative for the average Windows user. It still has a long way to go.

Whether it will ever get there is impossible to predict. In the meantime, Linux's unfriendliness to users who demand utter point-and-click simplicity should by no means rule it out for everyone. For the computer-literate user -- the person who is not afraid of a challenge and is eager to learn -- coming to grips with Linux can be hugely enjoyable. Linux devotees regularly tout how readily help and support can be obtained on the Net, and I found that these claims are not exaggerated. Every time I posted a question, I received loads of immediate, friendly and exhaustive help.

September 1998

...I find it fascinating that so many mainstream publications would suggest that Microsoft is threatened by Linux.

The idea itself doesn't surprise me. It's the spin -- or, rather, the conspicuous absence of it. The recent Linux coverage lacks pundimosity. No, you won't find "pundimosity" in the dictionary. It is an invention of my own. It stands for the animosity many pundits exhibit toward technologies outside the mainstream. If you want historical examples of the inflammatory rhetoric that is pundimosity, go to your local library and search trade publication archives using keywords such as OS/2, OpenDoc, and network computing.

Perhaps one reason you can talk about Linux without wearing an asbestos suit is that there is no single leader to vilify. The network computer was vulnerable to pundimosity because its primary evangelist, Larry Ellison, is the kind of public personality people love to hate. As another example, anti-Java pundits were fond of accusing Scott McNealy of wanting to replace Bill Gates as software platform dictator. (As if there's something honorable about sticking with Windows because Gates' competition wants to make money.)

...It is also difficult to undermine the credibility of Linux advocates. They are perceived as the good guys. The ones who charge you for buggy software and keep the source code secret are the nasty black hats. The white hats keep source code open and often donate their time and effort for the good of the cause. As a result, to quote Red Hat Software President Bob Young, "attacking Linux devotees would be like attacking Mother Teresa." Any effort to do so would surely backfire.

"A skilled net-surfer with a fast modem can routinely download volumes of the kind of high-grade information that old-style intelligence services once had to pay for with time, sweat, and money if not blood." [18] ...

...A National Knowledge Strategy should aim the elimination of various "iron curtains" between nine major sectors and the creation of an "information continuum" that focuses on:

...Al Gore and the National Information Infrastructure (NII) are "all connectivity and no content," concludes Mr. Steele "sadly" [20, 23]. "This Nation [US] does not have a National Knowledge Strategy, and there is no one in Washington with any clue as to how to devise one."

... ... ...

Other intellectuals resist the promises and "hype" of the "Information Age" on ideological grounds. John Zerzan sees in this "information revolution" more alienation and anxiety. "Second Wave" enslavement of labor will be no different from its "Third Wave" counterpart. "The Information Age 'office of tomorrow' will be no better that the sweatshop of yesteryear." [28] The future is no bright either. The "Universal Dead Zone of Civilization" will be infanticized by more computerization. The problem is internal. An emasculated society that cannot resist "consumerism" and its modus vivendi cannot transmit "experience" (which is the chore of civilization). [29] Before empowerment, we need to answer a fundamental question: Can the "world-that-enforces-our-inability-to-change" be forced to change? Daniel Brandt wrote some thought provoking arguments along these same lines in his "Decline of American Journalism" piece [2, 28].

One final trend, a "Jeffersonian Vision" [2], is represented in the persons of John Perry Barlow, Mitch Kapor, Jerry Berman and the "INTERNET-based" Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). While recognizing in this technology the "most liberating development in the history of humankind," they fear it could become the surveillance system that monitors future generations. New and fresh readings of George Orwell's "1984" resurfaced on the interplay of technology, privacy and the role of "Big Brother". [34]

The new Unix alters NT's orbit: The re-emergence of Unix threatens to modify the future direction of NT -- By Nicholas Petreley. NC World, April 1998.

"...The future of Windows NT is threatened less by the superiority of its competition than the inferiority of Windows NT, which results from Microsoft's misplaced priorities. As we demonstrated in the first installment, Microsoft's design decisions are driven more by its attempt to protect its desktop monopoly than by technical excellence. As evidence, Windows NT is less stable than Unix because it is more vulnerable to clashing shared libraries (DLL conflicts). But it is only left vulnerable in this way because Microsoft likes to overwrite existing system DLLs with its applications (thus secretly "upgrading" the operating system in ways no competitor would dare to do) to gain unfair leverage against its competition. "Fixing" the DLL problem is technical simplicity. It simply isn't desirable from Microsoft's perspective. In addition, Windows NT has a dangerous driver model because it is willing to sacrifice stability for speed in an attempt to win benchmarks against competing operating systems. Until now, these compromises have worked because Microsoft's domain has been limited to the desktop. It is only now beginning to infiltrate the departmental server market, and is attempting to challenge higher-end systems. And as Intel-based Unix draws attention to the differences in quality between NT and Unix, the prospect of a wholesale switch to NT is looking less and less appealing."

May 1998

April 1998

March 1998

February 1998

January 1998



Groupthink : Two Party System as Polyarchy : Corruption of Regulators : Bureaucracies : Understanding Micromanagers and Control Freaks : Toxic Managers :   Harvard Mafia : Diplomatic Communication : Surviving a Bad Performance Review : Insufficient Retirement Funds as Immanent Problem of Neoliberal Regime : PseudoScience : Who Rules America : Neoliberalism  : The Iron Law of Oligarchy : Libertarian Philosophy


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Vol 25, No.12 (December, 2013) Rational Fools vs. Efficient Crooks The efficient markets hypothesis : Political Skeptic Bulletin, 2013 : Unemployment Bulletin, 2010 :  Vol 23, No.10 (October, 2011) An observation about corporate security departments : Slightly Skeptical Euromaydan Chronicles, June 2014 : Greenspan legacy bulletin, 2008 : Vol 25, No.10 (October, 2013) Cryptolocker Trojan (Win32/Crilock.A) : Vol 25, No.08 (August, 2013) Cloud providers as intelligence collection hubs : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2010 : Inequality Bulletin, 2009 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2008 : Copyleft Problems Bulletin, 2004 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2011 : Energy Bulletin, 2010 : Malware Protection Bulletin, 2010 : Vol 26, No.1 (January, 2013) Object-Oriented Cult : Political Skeptic Bulletin, 2011 : Vol 23, No.11 (November, 2011) Softpanorama classification of sysadmin horror stories : Vol 25, No.05 (May, 2013) Corporate bullshit as a communication method  : Vol 25, No.06 (June, 2013) A Note on the Relationship of Brooks Law and Conway Law


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