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RIP: Community Linux (1991-2007)

The idea that Linux is primarily a community-based project based on the work of thousands of independent, idealist hackers died a quiet death at home on March 27.

The proximate cause of death was the Linux Foundation’s naming of its new board of directors. This leading non-profit Linux organization’s board included many Fortune 500 executives from around the world — but not one representative from a purely community-based Linux organization.

Linux, as a community project, had been in ill health for some time. One recent setback was the crippling of Debian. Rather than work together on releasing the next version, Etch, of this core community of Linux developers has seemingly slowed their work down to a crawl because of internal disputes.

As Debian’s father, Ian Murdock, observed, not long before moving to Sun, Debian had become a project where the process had run amok. Thus, Murdock said, “no leader feels empowered to make decisions unless everyone agrees with him. And since no one as the size of the organization grows ever agrees on anything, no decisions ever get made.”

Another Community Linux project, Fedora, was to be freed from Red Hat, its corporate sponsor. In the end, though, the company decided that the project would remain under Red Hat control. Fedora’s management was to have gone to the Fedora Foundation.

It wasn’t just ailing projects, however, that brought Community Linux to its untimely end. Linux distributors have long been turning away from the idealistic notions of a completely free software distribution.

Linspire took the biggest step by introducing its Freespire distribution, which aims to include legal support for every proprietary format and program that is available to Linux. Examples include: MP3, DVD, Windows Media, QuickTime, Java, Flash, Real media, ATI and NVIDA graphic drivers, Win-modem drivers, proprietary WiFi drivers, Bitstream fonts, and more.

Eric S. Raymond, Linux’s godfather with his important early support for the operating system, agreed whole-heartily with the concept of supporting necessary proprietary software in Linux and even joined Freespire’s Leadership Board. Raymond said, “If that means paying licensing fees to the Microsofts of the world so that people can watch Windows media files, then so be it.”

Ubuntu, the most popular of the Community Linuxes, remains directed by Mark Shuttleworth and his company, Canonical, and he too has conceded that Ubuntu must include “proprietary drivers [that]… are required to enable essential hardware functionality.”

Attempts to bring Community Linux back to free software ways have met with very limited success. There are only a handful of free-software-only Linux distributions such as gNewSense.

The Community Linux leaves behind a robust, successful family of Commercial Linux operating system children, including: oldest son, Red Hat; step-son, Novell; and desktop daughters, Linspire, Ubuntu, and Xandros. Corporate relatives, such as IBM, HP, and Oracle, aim to make certain that Commercial Linux, as opposed to Community Linux, will have a long, healthy life.

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