The Corporate Eyeball Trap

Recently, Open Source Definition Author Bruce Perens spoke about some of the threats facing Linux. He specifically pointed at things like software patents, which he rightfully identified as a real danger to any form of innovation and growth in Linux.

However, it isn’t the only one. There is another one – sneakily creeping up on the Open Source world, ready to bite – something I call the “Corporate Eyeball Trap”.

Allow me to give you some background first.

The whole Linux and Open Source thing has been growing by leaps and bounds since the early 1990s. Pushed by people who cared about the software and its freedom, the concept grew and attracted many people to its fold. Allowed to grow relatively undisturbed (largely because nobody really took it seriously then), Linux and other Open Source projects ripened in the sunshine of goodwill and enthusiasm.

Somewhere around 1998, however, things began to change. Other factors came into play – factors that would provide Linux a broader platform, more opportunities and a chance to grow beyond its (perceived) hobbyist nature.

What I am talking about is the advent of “commercial involvement” in Linux – with big names entering the game, and supporting Linux as a corporate computing platform.

Suddenly, a lot of money started flowing, and huge IT vendors began “embracing” Linux like a long-lost child. This was not unlike what had started happening to the Internet around 1993, when businesses started getting involved.

Now while in general this is seen as a “Good ThingTM“, given the effect this had on Linux’s growth worldwide and corporate circles, there was a hidden danger – and the danger was that vendors would “adopt” Linux as a platform to run their applications on, but would not adopt the development process and ideology that governs the development of Linux and other Open Source projects.

In December 2002, I wrote this:

Already a huge number of products have started appearing that “run under Linux”, a measurable proportion of them are just another manifestation of the closed source model of development. This does not provide the government any benefits of the FLOSS model.

Today, I see this everywhere. People are using the “Linux fever” that is raging worldwide to attract attention and cut out their competition (and free themselves from the shackles of another widely-used operating system), but they aren’t really fostering the development process behind it.

In fact, it gets worse. Today, I see many vendors using the name of Linux to attract corporate and government eyeballs, only to try and sell them their closed source, proprietary solutions.

Over the past year, I have seen a number of such instances. The modus operandi is simple and effective:

  1. Announce a “Corporate Linux Event”
  2. Get big-name corporate CEOs/CTOs/CIOs to attend the event
  3. Expound the virtues of Linux
  4. Make a sales pitch for their closed source wares that run under Linux

If you are a CxO, I am sure you have seen such situations often enough, and each time you ask yourself how you got yourself conned into this again.

At such events, you will never see the sponsoring vendor (and there invariably is one, even if the event organisers appear to be vendor-neutral) highlighting a true Open Source product (such as, say, a database product, or a mail server product) in favour of their own proprietary product. If asked about a true Open Source product as a solution (say MySQL or Postgresql instead of the vendor’s proprietory product) they are quick to point out the failings/shortcomings of the Open Source product. They even use terms like “those are good to get started, but if you want to graduate to enterprise class, you should consider our proprietary product”.

A few years ago, I found myself participating in such events, and it was an eye-opener for me. In those days, it wasn’t quite as blatant as it is these days, but I still saw it, and it saddened me. I never participated in such events again, and this also explains why you won’t see me at many of the “Linux events” happening all around.

Nowadays, such events often have multiple tracks – with the important CxO participants in one hall, where effectively only the vendors speak, and all other “trimmings” in other halls, listening to the “less important” speakers.

It is people at the “ordinary” level who are more likely to be exposed to, and understand, the concepts of Open Source, and are more likely to ask difficult questions, such as “why are you pushing a closed source product in the name of Linux?”

To prevent such “intrusions”, such “Linux events” are usually either “invitation only”, or priced so high that ordinary people cannot attend them. Either way, the vendors effectively shield their target audience from unwanted “interference” by people who see things as they really are.

This sickens me, because what the vendors are actually doing is using Linux as flypaper to get corporate eyeballs. That’s all.

And I have seen CxOs attending such events come away with the distinct impression that there isn’t really anything much to Linux, apart from being an “application launcher”. And that Open Source is OK for entry level, but that at the enterprise level, you should use proprietary applications.

This is a real danger to Linux and Open Source – do this often enough, and people will pay as much attention to Linux and Open Source as they do to (say) the BIOS of their PCs.

And that is the “Corporate Eyeball Trap” I was talking about – Linux to get your attention, but once they have that, their objectives are anything but Open Source friendly.

Doesn’t this sound remarkably like handing out free phones to use an expensive service?

The whole idea behind Linux and Open Source is not to be an alternative platform to Windows or proprietary Unix, but the process by which they are developed – the Open Source development process.

And this is my point:

Motivated vendors are projecting Linux and Open Source as PRODUCTS, with a finite scope. In reality, Open Source is a PROCESS, and the scope is far more than the vendors let on.

You won’t catch vendors dead highlighting that, because that is where the real danger lies to them and their proprietary products. They will not (and often cannot) open their products to the Open Source process of development. Their fears are that their products will be examined by countless people, bugs will be found and highlighted, security issues identified and publicised (and exploited by the nasties), and their (often patented) methods will be exposed to the world, including the competition.

If you are a CxO, and are exposed to a “Linux friendly” vendor (notice, they always say “Linux friendly”, never “Open Source friendly”), ask them why they insist on trying to sell you their closed source products instead of offering you the benefits of an equivalent product developed in the Open Source way.

Open Source has many, many advantages – more secure (because it is possible to audit the code), often more innovative, and certainly more cost effective. And it can make you vendor independent for support – if you use the product, and are dissatisfied with the vendor’s support, you can go elsewhere and get support for the same product. Voila! No vendor lock-in!

If a vendor offers you a closed source product, ask him why he doesnt offer you an Open Source product instead. The vendor can still make his money by charging you for support, and I am sure you would be only too happy to pay for that.

I must also point out that I myself have played a role in organising Linux events in the past, and will in the future – both as a community efforts (e.g. Linux Bangalore/2003) as well as commercial efforts (such as Linux-oriented training events by my company).

However, I can sleep well at night – none of these events have ever pushed the concept of proprietary, closed source products under Linux. For us, it is Open Source all the way.

As I have often told my clients and audiences at my talks – it is the long term benefits of adopting software developed in the Open Source way that you should really be looking at, because the future is open.

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