Linux guru touts OS for business use

Eric S. Raymond is well-known as the author of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", a classic essay on the open source software movement and has been an open source innovator and advocate for years. He is a board member at VA Linux Systems, and often lectures around the world on the benefits and future of Linux, Unix and open source software. Computerworld talked with Raymond recently and asked him for his thoughts on Linux in today's business market.

Q: Last year, IBM Corp. jumped onto the Linux bandwagon by announcing it would invest US$1 billion in the operating system this year. Is this a fad or symbolic of a major buy-in by one of computing's biggest names?

A: I don't think open source adoption is a fad. IBM doesn't do fads. Corporate America responds to costs and economic reasons. The fundamental issue in the increased proliferation of Linux and open source software in business computing is the escalating cost of traditional closed software and its rising complexity and bugginess. The costs of bad software are rising in terms of lost business and hours spent by systems administrators chasing problems. So far, open source is the only real way to fix this because existing methods can be done only by a finite number of people working on it. In open source, there are still wide groups of people to add more heads to solve the problems.

Q: Do you want to see Linux get a larger piece of the pie in the business computing world, being used by more companies in place of Windows on desktops? Does this matter to you?

A: The open source community doesn't directly care about corporate adoption of open source software, but indirectly, yes, we want to see that happen, because if you want to change the world, you need the cooperation of the people writing the checks.

We have changed the nature of the conversation in the software industry. People in closed software companies are on the defensive now. We don't have to justify what we are doing. They have to justify what they are doing.

Q: Where can Linux find a niche to begin popularizing itself as a true business desktop alternative that could be successfully marketable to IT departments?

A: If you're a retail or hotel outfit, you have lots of computers out there where no technicians are located. Your business problem is that you need to deploy computers that are not going to crash -- ever. That's where Linux and open source start to look much more attractive and viable. Technicians in the inner sanctums of corporate computing are finding ways to use more open source in their companies, even when IT managers don't know it's being done. The only thing management ever notices is they stop having downtime.

Q: But analysts and industry professionals seem to agree that the advance of Linux onto corporate desktops as a Windows replacement isn't imminent or even at a point of truly being ready. What's your reaction?

A: I think the Microsoft desktop monopoly will break due to operating system pricing issues before Linux is really ready for the role of being a true alternative. We're nine months away from the polish for that role. Nine months from now, Linux will be ready to be used by Aunt Tillie. What's still needed is for Linux to be refined to eliminate any remaining glitches that stall installations and leave users unsure of how to proceed. That's the kind of stuff that needs to get fixed. There are people with incentives to do that now. The companies making Linux distributions hire people to do it.

Q: What about fears from businesses about using products like Linux if they can't get the support they are used to getting through existing vendor relationships?

A: Business users can get support for Linux. There are user groups, the distribution companies and professional support outfits. By going to Linux from Windows, you replace four or five IT problems that you can't solve with 100 little ones that you can solve.

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