On September 8, LynuxWorks announced
the availability of a beta release of BlueCat Linux 5.0. BlueCat is
the company's embedded Linux distribution; 5.0, interestingly, is based on
the (still unreleased) 2.6 kernel. LynuxWorks claims to have applied a
lengthy series of "ISO 9001:2000" reliability tests to this kernel. The PR
also cites some of the features of this kernel which are of interest to the
embedded community, including kernel preemption, the O(1) scheduler, and
the improved threading support. LynuxWorks, they say, is the first
embedded systems company to make these features available in a Linux-based
The interesting thing, of course, is that all of those features were
developed at other companies. Kernel preemption, in particular, was done
by Nigel Gamble and Robert Love at MontaVista - a direct LynuxWorks
competitor. The extensive testing done by LynuxWorks must certainly have
turned up bugs; the 2.6 kernel is still an unreleased product, beta quality
at best. Yet no fixes appear to have been sent back to the community.
Over the last year, only one posting appeared on linux-kernel from either
lynuxworks.com or lnxw.com - a request for help with a compilation
problem. The 2.6 BitKeeper repository, containing all patches merged since
February 2002, shows one set of patches from LynuxWorks.com: a USB Pegasus
driver by Petko Manolov. The last patch was merged in May, 2002.
We asked LynuxWorks if it had a list of recent contributions (which could,
after all, have been sent in from a different email address), but got no
LynuxWorks, in other words, is taking full advantage of the work of others
- including its competitors - to claim to be "first to market" with a set
of new features. And it has done so without contributing much of anything
back to the community from which it draws the software it is selling.
LynuxWorks is far from alone in this behavior, of course. LynuxWorks is
entirely within its rights. As long as they abide by the GPL, nobody can
complain if they use the software in this way. That is what free software
is all about.
It is also true, however, that being within your rights and being right are
not always the same thing. A company that is making money selling Linux
should feel some obligation to contribute back to Linux. Especially when
that company is in the operating systems business and clearly has the
technical resources to make that sort of contribution.
Contributing back is not just the right thing to do; it is also good
business. Customers feel better when they see that their suppliers have a
good relationship with the development community upon which they depend.
Customers also like the feeling that a supplier understands the software
well enough to make changes and get them accepted; it improves that chances
that bugs can be fixed and requested changes implemented. They feel better
about the software as a whole if the vendor cares enough to make it
better. Software with active support from those selling it has a better
chance of being around and still maintained a few years from now.
Many free software companies understand this well; they point to their free
software contributions as a source of pride. As users of free software
become more sophisticated, they will ask for that information. Customers
need to know that their suppliers can provide them with the support they
need, and that said suppliers are committed to the future of the software
they work with. A history of contributing back to the software in question
is one of the best ways to show customers what they want to see. It also
has the incidental benefits of making the software better and being the
right thing to do.
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