Eliminating Choice: Not in the Long Term View

In Russo’s A Response to the Paradox of Choice, I interpret this paragraph to be the crux of his essay:

It is now time for Linux to rise, unify, and eliminate choice [in] a positive way. The LSB2 project is a great start to unification of Linux. It is impossible to eliminate all choice. What the leaders must do is make their choices based on what is good for the Linux community in the long term. The truth is, if you eliminate some choices and dictate others so that Linux can be more united, Linux can only grow and prosper.

I believe this argument is mistaken, and the lines of the discussion ignore the nature of Free/Open Source Software. First, consider that there is no mechanism to tangibly remove choice from the Internet. Second, if the success of Linux depends on its narrow comparison to other systems, that is at best a short term point of view.

Russo proposes that eliminating choice strengthens the chances for success. Consider that by dictating some standards, you’ve neither eliminated choice nor dictated to the Linux developer community. The cummunity is not subordinant to the voice of authority. Rather, members of the community subscribe to the LSB guidelines when they wish to forge compatibility. The LSB has no control over the free will of the developers in the Linux community, nor could it. Such control is not possible. To juxtapose the image of corporate control over an ecosystem
is nonsense.

I think the anxiety about Linux standardization is due to the anxiety caused by the battle for desktops and servers…the battle for market ranking. What is truly lost if Linux doesn’t take over the world next year? In two, three, ten or fifty years? Nothing is lost, nor is anyone’s contribution to Linux in vain.

To think that Linux is in a race with any other opperating system is mistaken. However, people marketing Linux solutions are in a race…but in the context of their market, only. As long as their teams contribute to the body of Open Source software, their magnitude of their company’s success only matters to their stakeholders. Corporate sponsorship is vibrant part of open source and the Linux community, but corporate success is not the measurement of the success of Linux. User adoption is a measurement of the success of Linux.

The Linux community is not to be likened to a commercial entity, such analogies are inapplicable. The magnitude of choice in the Linux community is an expression of the absence of dictitorial corporate control over what developers may develop on. We are reminded of the concept of scratching an itch: Open Source starts as the scratching stick crafted by one and rubbed smooth as it is adopted by many. A corporate product in contrast is smoothed by marketing and intended to scratch an itch that statistics says should be there. While it can be improved, it improves only as long as the corporation feeds life into it. Most commercial applications and opperatings systems have surprisingly short term lifespans, often dictated by the life of the company.

The phenomenon of Open Source is an expression of community desire for software, not a corporate desire for profit. Software companies sprout and wilt like the grass in my yard, and so do the wares they provide that cannot grow in the medium of the community. Open source software projects become part of their community because the community can maintain them…or if you will…grow them.

The character of the FOSS community is likened in my mind more to agriculture than to manufacturing. The myriad of FOSS software available reflects all the hybridized and heirloomed varieties of software people have a taste for growing. These varieties are not in competition, they are merely selection. The corporate consumer, rather, has been exposed to the single taste of the supersized burger combo software. If the user is confused by the selection, their choice is really quite simple. However, if you want to introduce confused users to new tastes, focus not on reducing selection but providing a better introduction to learning about the selection. Consider Knoppix.

I think the scope of the issue is much larger than the software selection in today’s Linux distro. That can be changed rapidly if people desired. However, the scope of software adoption and use is changing: the barriers to software development are lowering rapidly. Use is increasing because the variety of solutions, or opportunity for low cost, customized solutions is more affordible for small businesses. FOSS has made this happen.

The last time you were in an old barn, did you stop to pick up the tongs that were forged by the blacksmith that lived on the property? The hayfork constructed from branches taken off the property? FOSS software is an expression of the antithesis of software consumerism, it is an expression of software self reliance. (And I think that small businesses that grasp the role of FOSS perpetuate these benefits.)

The anxiety people feel about Linux not being as good of a desktop as Windows or Mac only casts Linux and FOSS in those corporate terms. This anxiety will evaporate as people realize that FOSS is an expression of their growing self reliance to build their own software solutions…not a race to compete with or to be validated in likeness or corporate software offerings. However, this conciousness will take a generation
or two to really sink in.

Russo writes, “What the leaders must do is make their choices based on what is good for the Linux community in the long term.” I would think that this is argument is really only pertinent to the short term. The long term success of Linux is the long term success of Open Source. It is so assured that we need not worry about it (unless you’re concerned about freedom of speach). Neither does Linux derive its long term success from its leaders–it derives its long term success from its users. Were the “leaders of Linux” to steer their distros into a brick wall of incompatible features, users would move on and demand solutions the met their needs (or if motivated, create their own solutions). Already, this unbounded creativity is what we are seeing today.

Neither draw analogy to the success of Windows with its protracted set of choices to a success created by Linux similarly limited. Linux is in an entirely different marketplace: one where FOSS is present and clearly a more viable long term solution than many corporate software solutions. Linux is out-competing Windows in legitimate low end markets and provides stability by freeing the user from the costly and traumatic cycle of
file format obsolecense.

Limiting choice in current Linux distros to be more like Windows might increase Linux vendor’s short term market share. However, limiting choice in the realm of Open Source just isn’t in the nature of Open Source, and is not going to occur in the long term time frame. So, limiting choice in Linux will not occur in the long term at all. Even by not limiting choice in the short term will Linux adoption not fail to grow…it just might not grow as fast in the same niches Windows fills. Linux isn’t going to suddenly disappear. That it’s Open Source…no one will let it!

The long term success of Linux, or any Open Source software, is in its adoption and stewardship by users who want it. As software is developed across the globe in other countries, our grandchildren will live in a software culture molded by a new most common demonator in software…the lowest common demoninator becomes FOSS (not Microsoft).

Furthermore, the diversity of Linux distributions and FOSS applications we see today will be dwarfed by the selection present in fifty years. Those people who grow up in an environment of Open Source won’t feel any anxiety about this breadth of choice…they would be alarmed to see
it disappear.

About the Author
Jed Reynolds tries not to spend too much time on his computer at home, so he can concentrate on his family. He has been a programmer, system administrator and Linux user since 1992.

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