User impact key to open-source future

The Linux operating system celebrated its 10th birthday last month, but even as that milestone was lauded last week at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco, Linux creator Linus Torvalds and other open-source gurus proposed some very different ideas of what will come next for the community.

The wide range of thinking about an operating system that's still emerging, in many respects, reflects what supporters say is an inherent strength of the open-source model: It brings together many minds to work on a problem. But it also illustrates an inherent weakness: No single person or entity is leading Linux or open-source development into the future.

According to Torvalds, that's the way it should be: Developers should create code to suit only their own needs, while paying little attention to the rest of the world.

"There is no [one] thing that matters" in the future development of the Linux operating system, he said. "You should not think that we have a direction and that's where we want to go. That's what a company does."

Dirk Hohndel, who last week announced his departure as CEO of Germany-based SuSE Linux AG, strongly disagreed. Developers must address the needs of users to build support for Linux and open-source software, whether as a community or as a company, he argued.

"If you don't like calling them customers, call them users I don't care if you are so scared of calling it a company," Hohndel said. "This is something that people on the outside need and want."

Red Hat Inc. President and CEO Matthew Szulik said the open-source community has helped bring maturity to Linux in the past 10 years and now must look outside itself and become a real option for users in a commercial world dominated by proprietary software.

What's critically needed, Szulik said, is for open-source developers to begin to share the wonder and promise of open-source software with users who are clamoring for better, cheaper software. To do that, he said, open-source developers must walk away from their Internet connections and go out into their communities, evangelizing about the benefits of software that isn't tied down by restrictive licenses and burdensome technical requirements.

"It starts off by being an active voice in your community," Szulik said. "There are young people who can gain from your extraordinary gifts."

Instead of just debating the future with one another in online discussion forums, creators of open-source software and systems should take their cases to classrooms and onto the floor of Congress to galvanize support for open-source software, Szulik said.

"It's my belief that the open-source community across the country can help [others] gravitate to this," he said. "We should see this as a wonderful opportunity."

To that end, Red Hat is exploring the possibility of creating a nonprofit foundation to promote open-source software use in schools, Szulik said. The company has been talking with other nonprofits to gather ideas and potential funding sources.

"It just has to start with a spark," Szulik said.

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