On IBM, Microsoft, RedHat, and Loss of Innocence
Forgive me as I wax nostalgic and go on about our collective lost innocence. Perhaps I should capitalize and italicize the word, "Innocence." You see, I've been doing a lot of soul-searching since the news of IBM purchasing RedHat broke a couple of weeks ago, and even now, it leaves an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can't quite pin down. Do you want to hear something weird? If this had happened ten years ago, I probably wouldn't have blinked. So, why now?
Before I spend some time dissecting this, I'll point out that while it felt weird when Microsoft bought GitHub, my reaction was more of a "why would they do that?" than "this is the beginning of the end!"
Microsoft has spent a lot of time recently in trying to convince us that they love Linux with their "Microsoft hearts Linux" campaign. Even Steve Ballmer, infamous for comparing Linux to a cancer a score of years ago, touted his newfound love for Linux as well.
Meanwhile, not long after the whole "Linux being a cancer" thing, IBM came out with their beautiful Linux Prodigy ads.
I'll be honest here. Those things still bring a tear to my eyes. If you want to see more of those ads, I'll include a list of them at the end of this article.
Way back then, IBM convinced me of their love for Linux. Their history with Linux and open source is excellent. And yet, when I compare this announcement with the earlier GitHub announcement, it feels different. It's not like IBM is going to 'steal' Linux because Linux belongs to everyone. That's the beauty of the open source license under which Linux is distributed.
Linux is big business. Let's face it . . . Linux has won the OS wars. Linux is now the single most popular and used operating system on the planet. Combined with other open source software, it makes possible the nearly magical world in which we live. Everything you do online, every song you listen to, and every cat video you watch, is brought to you via one or more open source project riding atop a gazillion Linux servers. Linux isn't a hobby project that 'probably will never run on anything better than a 386' but the heart and soul of the Internet.
Maybe that's part of it; the corporatization of Linux. Somewhere back there, I and thousands of people like me, became impassioned with the promise of open source, a promise that has delivered in ways beyond what we could have imagined. We saw, in all that open source code, a way that everyone of us, regardless of where or who we worked for, could help in creating this magical thing. All those crazy ways of doing the same thing, including spinning up countless Linux distributions, was never a weakness; it was part of the evolution of open source and we all had a part in it. Open source became a kind of strange family hell bent on creating the future, a future that didn't need big business. Naive maybe, but you can't deny that an Open Source culture was rising out of all that code. Even while businesses started building their empires around Open Source.
While IBM may have done a lot of good for Linux and open source over the years, they have a very different culture then what you might expect in an open source business. Unless they somehow manage to be truly hands off when it comes to RedHat, the culture of a Linux focused company like RedHat will be affected. It would also be naive to ignore the fact that there is a different attitude between what happens inside a RedHat versus what happens inside an IBM. RedHat is, by its nature and by its history, an Open Source company with (more or less) Open Source ideals. IBM is a huge corporate monolith whose history is anything but open.
"Thank goodness we still have Ubuntu (Canonical)," more than one friend quipped. Canonical, whatever you may want to say about it, is dedicated to one product, namely Ubuntu. When Microsoft bought GitHub, they were buying a repository, not every single open source project there. The nature of those projects don't change because Microsoft doesn't own them. If somebody wants to create another word processor when everyone will tell them we don't need another word processor, it just doesn't matter. That open source creator's passion will drive them to, just maybe, give us the word processor we never knew we wanted.
And, now that I think about it, while Microsoft buying a repository of FOSS projects didn't bother me, I'm pretty sure that I'll feel differently if and when they decide to buy Canonical.
There was something intoxicating about the early days of Linux and Open Source. We were young (in spirit, at least) and unafraid to try something, knowing that we were working to build a better world. "We," not some big monolithic corporation. Nostalgic? Maybe. But as IBM and Microsoft embrace Linux and Open Source, I fear the loss of community. Of our innocence. Mostly, I mourn the loss of a time when we, the community, thought we could change the world.
As promised, here's a list of the wonderful IBM "Linux Prodigy" ads.
I'll end this trip down memory lane with a final ad from IBM's Prodigy series, one that seems strangely apropos.