Eric S. Raymond, author of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," a classic essay on the open-source software movement, has been an open-source innovator and advocate for years. He's a board member of VA Linux Systems Inc. in Fremont, Calif., and lectures around the world about the benefits and future of Linux, Unix and open-source software. Computerworld's Todd R. Weiss recently spoke with Raymond to get his views on the prospects for Linux in the business market.
Q: Last year, IBM jumped onto the Linux bandwagon by announcing that it would invest $1 billion in the operating system this year. Is this a fad, or is it a sign of a major buy-in by one of computing's biggest names?
A: I don't think open-source adoption is a fad. IBM doesn't do fads. Corporate America responds to costs and economic reasons. The fundamental issue in the increased proliferation of Linux and open-source software in business computing is the escalating cost of traditional closed software and its rising complexity and bugginess.
The costs of bad software are rising, in terms of lost business and hours spent by systems administrators chasing problems.
Q: Where can Linux find a niche to begin popularizing itself as a true business desktop alternative that could be successfully marketed to IT departments?
A: If you're a retail or hotel outfit, you have lots of computers out there where no technicians are located. Your business problem is that you need to deploy computers that are not going to crash - ever. That's where Linux and open source start to look much more attractive and viable.
Technicians in the inner sanctums of corporate computing are finding ways to use more open source in their companies, even when IT managers don't know it's being done. The only thing management ever notices is they stop having downtime.
Q: But analysts and industry professionals seem to agree that Linux isn't ready to replace Windows in the corporation.
A: I think the Microsoft desktop monopoly will break due to operating system pricing issues before Linux is really ready for the role of being a true alternative.
We're nine months away from the polish for that role. What's still needed is for Linux to be refined to eliminate any remaining glitches that stall installations and leave users unsure of how to proceed. That's the kind of stuff that needs to get fixed. There are people with incentives to do that now. The companies making Linux distributions hire people to do it.
Q: What about the support issue?
A: Business users can get support for Linux. There are user groups, the distribution companies ... By going to Linux from Windows, you replace four or five IT problems that you can't solve with 100 little ones that you can solve.