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Where is the Linux community? Two years ago, now, came the announcements that both Oracle and Infoseek would port their database products to Linux. Such announcements are an hourly event now, so those who weren't into Linux at that time perhaps do not have a feel for what an impact those announcements made. For many, the availability of Oracle was the one indicator that would show that Linux was for real.
In the light of those announcements, LWN (in the July 30, 1998 issue) worried about the future of the Linux community.
So what happens when Linux really explodes, as seems (to some) inevitable? Just how weird is it going to get? Will we look back with nostalgia to 1994, when nobody knew what we were talking about? Will we want our old Linux back? For now this is still our revolution, and we can maybe shape its future. Before long, that may no longer be true.
Two years later, it is perhaps worthwhile to evaluate the situation and see where things stand.
The Linux development community may never have been healthier. Once upon a time, it took years to get an X-enabled version of the emacs editor - one of the prominent free software projects of that era. Now projects like GNOME, KDE, Mozilla, and many, many others can aspire to build systems of far greater size and complexity. The free software development process is strong, and knows it.
But what about the community? Once the Linux development community was at the core of Linux. Now it is probable that a great many Linux users could not name more than one or two people who developed the software they are using. The old Linux community is simply not present for much of the system's user base.
This community may have been pushed to the side, but some time spent on the mailing lists or at events like the Ottawa Linux Symposium (see below) will show quickly that this community is as strong as ever. Its members have, to a great extent, left their university and "day job" positions for jobs with competing Linux companies, but the way they work together has been little changed by all that. The joy of hacking, the emphasis on producing the best code, and the enjoyment of working together all remain. When you're immersed in the development community, it's almost like the good old days - except that far more is going on.
The popularity and commercialization of Linux have raised many fears. Would the developers who built the system take offense at others profiting from their work and leave? Will commercial pressures tear the development community apart? Or maybe the developers will take off looking for the next cool thing, now that Linux is mainstream. All of those things could yet happen, but, thus far, they have not. Things look good for Linux development.
The Ottawa Linux Symposium was a good place to find the Linux development community. With a program dominated by Linux developers, lots of time set aside for people to talk, access to good beer, and no exhibit floor it was truly a hacker's event. Have a look at LWN's OLS coverage for reports and pictures from the event.
The Linux community needs events of this kind. It is this sort of gathering that lets Linux hackers concentrate on the code and each other without distractions. OLS sold out well before the event began; one presumes this means that the conference was successful financially. We're looking forward to the next one.
For a different sort of event, consider the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, to be held in San Jose on August 14 to 17. It will be much that OLS was not: garish exhibits, rock bands, suits and ties, and lots of exhibit hall swag to haul home. An example of the style of this conference can be found in this press release, which raises the hype level to new highs:
In San Jose, California, a new space race has captured the hearts and minds of geeks and nerds the world over. Would-be exhibitors at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo are at wits' end trying to stake a claim to even the tiniest square foot of carpeting, with varying degrees of success.
Somehow one must doubt the extent to which the "hearts and minds of geeks and nerds the world over" are really "captured" by the woes of frustrated LinuxWorld exhibitors. But then, it's a strange world. Of course, the PR also puts the first release of Linux in 1994, and claims that the LinuxWorld exhibit floor has sold out for four years in a row - despite the fact that the first one was in March of 1999...
Cheap shots aside, the LinuxWorld conference is also an important event, and LWN's editors not only plan to be there, but will be giving a talk and a tutorial as well. While OLS caters to Linux hackers, LinuxWorld reaches out to Linux users, current and future. It also gives an unparalleled view of the state of the business of Linux. This, too, is the Linux community, in a different form.
Some updates from the DVD front. The 2600 case (wherein 2600 Magazine is being sued by the MPAA in the form of Universal City Studios for having mirrored the DeCSS code) has concluded testimony in New York. Some of the final developments in the trial include:
The judge responded very well to Mr. Touretzky's testimony, saying things like "I was hoping we were going to hear something like this through the whole trial." and "I think one thing probably has changed with respect to the constitutional analysis, and that is that subject to thinking about it some more, I really find what Professor Touretzky had to say today extremely persuasive and educational about computer code."
Much of the effort in the courtroom seems intended to demonstrate that the intent of those working on the DeCSS software was not to pirate movies. In this way, they hope to get around the provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act against the possession of tools for the circumvention of copy protection mechanisms. DeCSS is, they say, not a circumvention tool; it's simply a way for people to make use of the DVDs they have purchased.
Thus, there are two rights being argued here. One is that of reverse engineering - we have the right to look at things we own and figure out how they work. We even have the right to make other things that work in the same way. The other is that code is speech, that there is no way to distinguish between the two. In the U.S., of course, equating code and speech is important, because protections on speech are (still, so far) relatively strong. If code is speech, then we are in our rights to post it.
If these rights are lost, free software is in deep trouble. The free software development process works well, but that buys little if it is illegal to develop code that does interesting things, or to distribute that code. The DVD case is about fundamental freedom; let us hope that it goes well.
(See also: This Salon article about Goldstein's testimony, this Newsbytes article about Johansen's appearance, and the EFF DVD case archive which contains, among other things, full transcripts of the testimony in the case.)
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July 27, 2000