Does Open Source = Closed Mind?

"What's LI-Nux?"

The question came from my cousin, Mary an art teacher. Mary is the first to acknowledge that she knows little about operating systems and has no interest in them, though she is an avowed Macintosh enthusiast.

"Linux," I said correcting her pronunciation. "It's an operating system, like the Mac OS X. But unlike Windows or Macintosh, it's open source. That means that thousands of people have contributed bits of functionality to the code, so no one owns it and anyone can potentially contribute or modify it and it costs a lot less than software developed by commercial vendors like Microsoft. Why do you ask?" I said.

"Well," Mary said, "I went online, did a search on your name and saw all these articles calling you DiDiot and other names. Why do these people hate you so much?" she asked, puzzled.

"They think I hate Linux and that I'm a 'paid Microsoft shill,'" I replied.

"That's silly," Mary countered, "why would anyone hate an operating system?"

Why, indeed.

It is difficult to ascribe any rational explanation to the vitriolic responses that descend on any reporter, analyst, rival vendor or industry observer that dares to voice any criticism of Linux or open source, no matter how constructive, logical or accurate.

For the record, only a very small portion of individuals engage in such abusive, insulting and divisive rhetoric and activities. The overwhelming majority of the Linux and open source vendors and larger developers are intelligent individuals. They are committed about the value of open source and Linux. They will engage in lively debates, but legitimate Linux and open source aficionados can and do distinguish between spirited dialogue and defamatory diatribe.

Not so the fringe element of extremists.

Woe betide the individual or organization that dares to suggest that Linux or open source is less than perfect. They are greeted with a torrent of abuse from a small, but vocal and extremist element of the open source community. Thereafter, these analysts like myself or reporters, are marked as "enemies" and become objects of opprobrium on various online forums like Groklaw and Slashdot.

When a story or a report, such as Yankee Group's recent 2005 North American Linux Windows TCO Comparison Survey is published, the open source extremists swing into action. Some are not content to castigate or ridicule the objects of their ire in the online forums. They launch letter writing campaigns and frequently e-mail their superiors asking them to fire the reporters or analysts in question.

Clearly, analysts who publish reports and reporters who write news articles are in very public professions. Critical comments and responses -- particularly in the Internet age, where articles are transmitted and circumnavigate the global online community faster than you can say "Magellan" -- are part of the business. The sheer knowledge that technical articles and reports, particularly those that deal with hot topics like Linux and open source, will be read by thousands or millions of people puts us all on notice that the research had better be able to withstand the scrutiny.

Constructive criticism and the ability to point out factual inaccuracies is the right (and some might even say, the responsibility) of readers. As someone who has worked as both a reporter and an analyst, I take this as a given and strive to "get it right the first time" to avoid the barbs.

However the fanaticism of this small faction among the Linux and open source community crosses the line of acceptable behavior.

In addition to the nasty e-mails and name calling, they commit other, more offensive transgressions as well: this analyst as well as several other reporters and analysts have been the target of late night and threatening phone calls to our homes.

There is simply no excuse for this.

The real irony here is that many of the fanaticists fail to read the very news articles and analyst reports they criticize. If they did, they might discover that the reports had many complementary and positive things to say about Linux and open source. Instead, the extremist faction busies itself sending inflammatory and often inaccurate e-mails about the reports.

That was certainly the case with the Yankee Group 2004 Linux, UNIX and Windows TCO Comparison Report and the latest 2005 North American Linux Windows TCO Comparison Report. The study found that the performance, reliability and security of the major Linux distributions compared favorably to Microsoft Windows. Both studies found that users, particularly those migrating away from legacy UNIX networks, were exceedingly pleased with Linux's ability to reduce hardware costs dramatically.

And yet within hours after Yankee Group released the data and the first press coverage appeared, the research report and its contents were swept aside and lost in the ensuing torrent of abuse.

The abuse became the story.

Yankee Group is not alone. Numerous analysts and reporters including Rob Enderle, Maureen O'Gara, Guy Matthews, Mary Jo Foley and Dan Lyons have all been at the receiving end of abusive missives. Last February, London-based security consulting firm Mi2g published the findings of its study that claimed Linux and not Windows networks were the number one target for hackers.

Mi2g soon found itself on the receiving end of abuse from Linux fanatics, which gained as much notoriety as the survey itself. That led company CEO, DK Matei to issue a statement on its Web site stating, "...That any empirical evidence pointing to a high level of online Linux breaches is immediately shot down by religious zealots as if a church had been desecrated."

Fortunately, reason and civility does prevail among the overwhelming majority of Linux and open source vendors, developers and devotees. Most of them don't understand the actions of this fringe element, either.

Telling these people to shut up will produce no results save more negative overwrought communiqués. So this analyst will strive to take the high road and ignore them unless or until the transgressions become criminal.

Laura DiDio is a senior analyst for the Yankee Group consulting firm in Boston. She has covered client and server operating systems, directory services, and OS security for 15 years as an analyst, reporter and editor. Laura DiDio holds a B.A. in Communications and a minor in French from Fordham University.

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