May 16th, 2006  |  Published in old and busted

From a story on whether or not Sun will open Java’s source [1]:

> After teasing Green about his casual dress, the pony-tailed boss asked him “So, are you gonna open source Java?” The audience laughed.

> Green paused and replied “When Scott [McNealy, former Sun CEO] did this to you, did you enjoy it?”

> Yes, it’s a headache for Sun, which doesn’t need any more headaches. While the company is answering the call to open its popular language, it’s also clear the company will do it on its own terms and won’t be dictated to by the community.

The last graf is the one I noticed:

> it’s also clear the company will do it on its own terms and won’t be dictated to by the community.

“The community” is, evidently, the open source community.

In some ways that makes the story all the more puzzling, because the conceptual whiplash at work marks that particular community as strangely porous and yet impermeable, depending on some factor I can’t quite fathom.

I’m willing to accept a pretty expansive definition of “community” because most “open source people” have kept the bar pretty easy to just trip over.

You seem to be a member if you slap an auto-booting Linux CD in a computer and let it install itself. You can probably be a member if you tell the CD to leave Windows alone. You’re definitely a member if you’re in high dudgeon over something Steve Ballmer said about Linux [2] and you read it on a Web browser that was actually running under Linux at the time. You’re probably even a member if you read it using a browser under Windows, and even if that browser was Internet Explorer, but only if you can aver that you’d much rather have gotten the bad news of Mr. Ballmer’s bad opinion while comfortably ensconced in a Linux session.

So having established the low point for entry (run something open-sourcey, embrace a creed of undying enmity for your newfound tribe’s enemies foreign and domestic), it seems like that lets a few other people in. We’ll figure those out by example:

  • Linus Torvalds? Check. He invented Linux. He can’t get out unless he does something weird.

  • Theo de Raadt? Sure. No one likes him, but he doesn’t like anyone else, so throwing him out would be hard to pull off. It’d be like kicking me out of the Methodist Ladies Quilting Auxiliary.

  • Eric Raymond? To the extent he tried (and failed) to trademark “open source,” it’d be hard to get rid of him, too. Plus, there’s a chance he’ll threaten anyone who tries with unspecified but fearsome consequences and possibly another sex howto, which our fragile planet cannot endure.

  • PJ at Groklaw? O.k. Why not? She loves Linux, hates SCO.

  • IBM? Of course! IBM thinks Linux is neat! And it even said it was gonna change all its desktops to Linux before it changed its mind and said it was just kidding, kind of. Plus, it paid a fine to the city of Chicago for using water-soluble spray paint to advertise Linux products. That’s k-rad!

  • Red Hat? Yeah. They sell Linux, and probably made it possible for most of the people who are the least pleasant about Linux to run it at all, so they can be in. With reservations: They’re kind of popular … they were once pretty popular, anyhow, and that’s bad because Microsoft is popular and that’s bad.

  • Some guy who wrote a simple little app that does something useful, then decided to give away the source code under an open source license? Yep. I mean … if you don’t let people in who actually write the code everyone else is enjoying, how could you even have a community?

Which brings us to the conceptual disconnect involved in posing Sun against “the community.” Sun’s given up the code to OpenOffice, Solaris and a few other things. People putatively characterized as being of the open source community have agreed to Sun’s licenses and taken its code. The Open Source Initiative has blessed off on Sun’s licenses as being officially open-sourcey enough.

Near as I can figure, Sun’s a member, too.

So as near as I can figure, that means Sun’s a member of a community that doesn’t really give a flip what Sun did for it in the way of giving it the only office suite that’s made Linux viable on any desktop of note or coughing up an entire operating system. It’s a community that won’t be happy until Sun gives away everything, including the one thing it really seems bent on not giving away.

I can think of only one community I’m a part of where the other members have anywhere near unqualified access to everything I’ve got, and that’s my family. They’ve got dibs on my time, my redundant organs, my money, and assorted intangibles. I keep some bits of some of that stuff for myself, but they’re all holding blank coupons for that, too, circumstances depending.

If I found myself in an intentional community that demanded as much, I’d be pretty creeped out and I think I’d leave. If I found myself in a community where I’d given as much as Sun had, and yet was still being posed as somehow contra that community, I think I’d probably leave, too.

I wouldn’t know whether I was part of a community, a cult, or even just a shakedown.

[1] I prefer “open Java’s source” to “open source Java” because I’m just not ready for that to be a verb yet.

[2] You can replace “Linux” with assorted BSDs, but probably not OS X because it has a proprietary GUI. Chances are good that anyone with an ATI video card and passable performance with XScreenSaver under Linux has a GUI that wouldn’t be running if it weren’t for proprietary extensions, but that’s a matter of deep personal ethical pain for, er, many.

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