Guest editorial: Time Out - Linux
When Red Hat acquired Cygnus, I got that first knot in my stomach. Here were two large Linux companies consolidating their forces and fortunes, when both were already very successful and growing. (Now I know that all the companies mentioned here are not "strictly" Linux companies, but as far as most Linux users are concerned, these are Linux companies.) Well, the Red Hat/Cygnus marriage was the first and most observers took an "OK, let's see what happens" attitude. Well, what happens is that shortly afterward, Red Hat's CEO steps "over" followed rather quickly by the CTO. Hmm...they still have nice sounding positions, so...OK.
Next comes the acquisition of Slashdot.org and Freshmeat.net by Andover.net. "Oh no! Rob Malda and crew have sold out" was the cry. But Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda and Jeff "Hemos" Bates dealt with Andover very shrewdly and retained complete editorial control of Slashdot. And once Andover went public, they (well-deservedly) became millionaires. They also successfully calmed the fears of devoted Slashdot readers. After all, Andover.net was going to supply some much needed operating capital and would relieve the guys from the tedious part of the business. Plus, the guys would have a little more financial reward for their efforts. Besides, who ever heard of Andover.net before this anyway. As far as Linux users were concerned, Slashdot and Freshmeat made Andover.net.
Now we get to this latest consolidation of Linux power. VA Linux buys Andover.net. I'm sorry guys, but this is just - too - much. This weakens the Linux community and is just too much to swallow.
Why is this latest grab so much different than the others mentioned and how has it weakened the Linux Community? It is different because it has consolidated several large separate places for the community to gather into one huge place. That in and of itself probably is not bad, but it might be a huge vulnerability should things go badly for VA. So how about the "weakened the Linux Community" part?
The sense (I'm talking perceptions here) that the strength of our diversity has been diluted is overpowering here. Freshmeat.net, the premier site for announcements of new software releases for Linux, might become just a subordinate index for VA's Sourceforge.net. Freshmeat has been weakened. Slashdot.org, the premier site for scientific and technical gossip and discussion, is now wholly owned by a Linux-specific entity. Most Linux users appreciate the fact that there has been more to Slashdot than Linux. But now, many other users who have given the Slashdot crew the benefit of the doubt about it's pro-Linux, pro-Open-Source leanings (and may have in the process been "won over") might be a bit more skeptical. And then of course, there is the "editorial bias" issue...
"Whoa there! Not CmdrTaco! Not Hemos!" Remember, I am talking perceptions here. On Monday, an open letter from Larry Augustin (VA) and Bruce Twickler (Andover) was posted on Slashdot. The discussion was lively with about half for and half against the "merger." One thing that was very interesting in this discussion was that both CmdrTaco (Malda) and Hemos (Bates) had multiple posts to the discussion. I spend more time than I should at Slashdot, and it's the first time I have seen CmdrTaco post to a discussion (I understand that he has posted at other times - but it is rare). It's just too bad that they feel any need at all to defend themselves. Now before I get stoned to death, I am not questioning these guys motives or integrity at all. In fact, in an article in Salon, the writer mentions that Malda had previously turned down an offer by VA Linux (before Andover) exactly for the reason of maintaining editorial integrity. But this time, VA Linux didn't have to ask Malda and crew. They only needed the majority of the board at Andover.net. When concerns were expressed about VA meddling with content on Slashdot, Malda indicated that content would remain firmly in his control and that anyway, VA wouldn't jeopardize their standing with the Linux community by screwing with Slashdot. However, it is my opinion that by purchasing it, VA has already screwed with Slashdot.
Consider this: Suppose you are an avid Slashdot reader, and you happen to think this article is interesting enough to submit to Slashdot. You submit it. One of two things happens. It makes it thru the flock of prodding geese and gets posted. Or it doesn't. If it does, the question that might appear in some readers' mind is "Did they post this so that they would appear unbiased?" If it doesn't get posted, then a question that might appear in your mind is "Did they NOT post it because it was negative against VA Linux?" Both questions are unfair (especially since many submitted stories are not posted), but the possibility that such questions might arise would not even have existed had not VA Linux purchased Slashdot. Slashdot has been weakened.
Why would VA Linux do this? Andover.net will increase VA's revenue stream, but with losses of almost 8:1, I can't imagine that investors were really pushing for something like this. I may be wrong, but I also can't imagine some of VA's advisors recommending this. (And ESR has been deafeningly silent on this issue as well.)
In an article on ZDNet after the announced acquisition, Larry Augustin mentions that he would like VA Linux to be the "Yahoo! of Linux." (Now, that statement becomes only a little frightening when you realize that Mr. Augustin had a chance to get in on the real Yahoo! but founded VA Research instead.) I don't think that's a bad goal, necessarily. A central meeting place online for the entire Linux community might be a good thing. But VA Linux already had a couple of great meeting places for the Linux community. Sourceforge.net is a fantastic service to the community. Linux.com is a great portal site for Linux users. But, in the eyes of some, weakening Freshmeat and Slashdot has made VA seem less concerned for the community. So regardless of VA's reasons, VA Linux has been weakened.
We need to grow our numerous Linux companies and organizations stronger to compete against who we should be competing against. The strategy used to be "grow the pie" or "raise the tide." It seems to have been forgotten. How does this grow the pie? How does this raise the tide? In the case of VA/Andover, 1+1+1 seems at best, just a little greater than 1. Where there once was Red Hat, Cygnus, VA Research, Linux Hardware Solutions, Freshmeat.net, and Slashdot.org, there are now just Red Hat and VA Linux. *Choke* This sure looks like an endgame strategy to me.
The opinions expressed here are entirely those of the writer and in no way reflect on the great folks here who agreed to publish it. Please direct questions, comments, and flames to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scotty Orr is a teacher, Linux enthusiast, and staunch Linux advocate since
1995. He has been using Linux since kernel 1.1.18.