What's Linux without Microsoft?

ITworld.com |  Development

For some in the open source community, the forces of software development have come to resemble the age-old paradox of Yin and Yang, which states that light does not exist without dark and there is no good without evil.

According to luminaries who subscribe to this philosophy, and who spoke about it last week in San Francisco at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, the mere presence of Microsoft Corp. has played a big role in the development of the Linux operating system and other open-source projects. Indeed, for some there could be no Linux without Microsoft.

"This balance of action and counter action is absolutely critical," said Dirk Hohndel, the co-creator of the XFree86 open source project and former chief technology officer at Linux distributor SuSE Linux AG. "It makes people innovate."

The software maker from Redmond, Washington, has hovered like a thick cloud over the open source community for as long as the loose-knit band of developers has worked on Linux, the flagship operating system of open source. Top Microsoft executives have criticized Linux and the software license that governs its free use, portraying it as an enemy of intellectual property .. Meanwhile, the software maker has continued to develop products aimed at the same markets Linux plays in, from server software to embedded operating systems.

Some agreed that the success of open source has depended at least in part on its chief rival always being in the picture.

"It is definitely true that having a common foe does give you something to shoot at, and it would be really easy to get lazy if somebody weren't out there to eat your lunch," said Eric Allman, co-founder and chief technology officer of Sendmail Inc., which offers a widely used open-source e-mail server program. "I'm just hoping that we don't fall into a pattern of simply playing catch-up with Microsoft, which is a danger."

The idea that innovation has emerged through competition with Microsoft has surfaced in several forms. Most recently, a group of programmers launched a project called Mono, intended to provide an open-source, Linux-based version of Microsoft's .Net platform for developing Web-based services. The group has promised that Mono will include .Net-compliant components that let developers create .Net applications for Windows, Linux or any other platform.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc., portrayed the relationship between Microsoft and Linux as a symbiotic one.

"Linux keeps Microsoft working hard in the government and education markets. Microsoft is, of course, what keeps the open source community together. Without Microsoft, they would be a lot more fragmented," Enderle said. "Both of them require the other to be in place."

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