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Are Contentious Debates Derailing FOSS?

Are Contentious Debates Derailing FOSS?

The idea of shutting down debate may be anathema to a community that has the words "free" and "open" in its very name. On the other hand, discussions without any type of boundaries may be destructive to forward progress, with the community chasing its own tail and ultimately devouring itself. Is there a self-regulation principle at work that keeps FOSS from drowning in its own cacophony? Should there be?

By Katherine Noyes
07/06/09 4:00 AM PT

Well, the Mono debate has been raging in the Linux blogosphere for some time now, and it shows no sign of abating.

Ever since RMS himself stepped into the fray to proclaim his own opinion, the fires have been burning higher than ever -- as we noted last week.

Close to 150 fresh comments appeared on the topic in just four days last week on LXer, for example, with no end in sight.

It will be some time before the dust settles again.

'I View Mono as a Distraction'

In the midst of all the din, however, a small, clear voice rang out with an idea we here at LinuxInsider couldn't resist picking up and examining a little more closely.

Specifically, it came from blogger rm42 on the "An alien's viewpoint," articulated in a post called "Discouraging FOSS." Essentially, the post suggests that debates such as the very one we're embroiled in now have the potential to distract and derail the community, to FOSS's detriment.

"It is clear that the more people are interested and able to improve and maintain the FOSS pool, the more Microsoft will find it hard to continue having success in the market," rm42 wrote. "In other words, the only hope for Microsoft to contain Linux is to remove the desire for people to continue contributing to it."

Focusing on the debate of the moment, "I view Mono as a distraction for FOSS developers," rm42 asserted. "Yes, there are some practical advantages in its use, but there are a lot of questions surrounding it. It has the potential of dividing the two major camps of Linux contributors."

Bickering about it, in other words, could be just what Microsoft would want us to do.

'When We Argue, Microsoft Wins'

"When we argue about Mono, Microsoft wins," agreed dthacker on LXer.

On the other hand: "What's the alternative, roll over and allow a dubious technology to infect Linux?" countered tuxchick. "Or contrarily, roll over and let scaredy cats chase a useful technology out of Linux?

"Microsoft profits from squelching openness and freedom in debate," tuxchick added. "Openness is a FOSS virtue, not a liability."

Then again: "We should just ignore Mono and .NET as much as possible," wrote softwarejanitor. "I don't spend any time arguing about it that I would have spent doing anything else, so no loss. I do put my time behind working with other toolsets."

'Very Much Needed'

So what is the best course of action? Do the debates benefit FOSS in any way, or would they be better cut short?

Linux Girl took to the streets of the blogosphere to find out.

"I think that the debates are very much needed," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider.

"The main reason the debate is needed is that we need to balance short and long term goals," Mack explained. "Short term, Mono is great and allows easier porting between Linux and Windows. But what about long term?

"The threat isn't so much that Microsoft revokes the technology but that Linux customers end up facing patent lawsuits if they don't get their Linux installs from distros that have Microsoft patent agreements," he asserted. "Imagine what that would do to competition in the Linux marketplace."

'Rattling the Patent Saber'

Microsoft has not been shy about "rattling the patent saber" in the past, Mack noted. "Any such patents would be hard to design around since the standard could be designed around one or more patents."

Ultimately, arguments that Microsoft cannot sue "are silly, since nothing prevented Rambus from using exactly this line of attack," he opined. On the other hand, "arguments that Microsoft won't sue ignore Microsoft's own past behavior."

Indeed, "all technology connected to M$, however remotely, is dangerous," blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. "M$ has a long history of embracing, extending and extinguishing technology. They can spend a billion dollars any time they want to extend a technology and gain control over it through their monopoly."

'A Longitudinal Study'

The company's monopoly is "weakened now, but it is still there," Pogson added. "FLOSS communities should not follow the path to destruction set up by M$. M$ will use software patents, copyright and market leverage to punish anyone who goes there."

Linux debates do distract the community, Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider.

"They're healthy because it's free speech, but unlike at Microsoft there is no final answer or decision maker to step in and make a management decision -- save, perhaps, Linus, but he tends to stay out of the fray on these arguments," yagu explained.

'Ultimately More Honest'

"Linux is a community of sorts, while Microsoft is a corporation making lots of decisions with the intent to maximize their profit," he noted. We won't know "for a long time" which is the best approach because "Microsoft vs. FOSS is a longitudinal study, and we don't know how long it lasts."

It could ultimately have historical significance, yagu asserted, taking place as it does in a lucrative and important economic sector.

Yet while the Linux bickering is a distraction, "at least in the short term, I still see it as healthy, productive and ultimately more honest," yagu concluded. "It's important to note that even with the constant in-fighting in Linux camps, Linux continues to maintain its (albeit small) desktop share and grows stronger in the server market each day."


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