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Linux Creator: A Little Fragmentation is Good

BURLINGAME, Calif. -- Linux creator Linus Torvalds defended the open source movement against critics who say that the so-called "community of communities" should band together or risk ending up like Unix.

"One of the big strengths of open source is that you have little coupling between these projects," Torvalds said during an Open Source Development Labs-sponsored Enterprise Linux Summit here this week.

"If you try to keep everything at the same level -- especially with communicating the changes -- that takes energy. What I see as a strength of open source is that you have competing projects."

The debate stems from recent comments by Nick McGrath, head of platform strategy for Microsoft in the United Kingdom, who said that Linux will become fragmented in the same way that Unix did a decade ago. Proof enough for McGrath was a move this week by the Free Standards Group, which said it will transition from its current single Linux Standard Base design to a module model.

"[LSB] will be a big challenge for the Linux community -- commercial advantage is what most organizations are looking for," McGrath told ZDNet UK earlier this month. "Think about what happened in the Unix world and the number of derivatives of Unix that now exist."

But Torvalds remained firm on his commitment to the open source community, saying that Linux in particular is now covering more of the ecosystem with smaller projects filling in the landscape.

"It is more fun to compete," Torvalds said. "From a project perspective, if you try to unify too much, you get lazy and you don't worry about who is behind you. So let's not cooperate too much."

Torvalds was joined in a jam-packed room for a panel discussion about how Linux is good for the enterprise with kernel maintainer Andrew Morton, Open Source Applications Foundation leader Mitch Kapor and CollabNet CTO and co-founder Brian Behlendorf.

Morton commented that the process for maintaining the Linux code has evolved for the better with more input, not less. He said changes in the 2.6 Linux kernel are designed to help accommodate hundreds of thousands of contributors.

"The de-coupled nature makes it so successful," Morton said. "There are currently 50 sub-system maintainers around the world, and that is pretty reasonable."

Torvalds also dismissed concerns by Microsoft and others that Linux is a security risk saying that code writers act differently when they know everyone is looking at their code.

"You take a performance hit, but the mindset thing is the biggest benefit," Torvalds said. Morton commented that he and Torvalds were also addressing latency issues in notifying against known vulnerabilities.

When asked if there was a conflict between companies that stand for open source and those that adopt open standards, Torvalds said the operative word is how an enterprise approaches the word "open."

"My problem with open standards is that people pay lip service to the open part of that equation, and they work on the standard first," he said. "I think they have to go together. There are standards bodies that have requirements ... I resolve that there should be an open requirement attached to that."

Kapor and the Mozilla Foundation conceded that Linux on the desktop did still have its challenges in combining various projects like GNOME, X.org, OpenOffice and KDE.

"Progress in the Linux desktop has not matched the Linux in the server," Kapor said. "More needs to be done in order to provide a seamless user experience -- comparable to or better than the same on a Windows or Macintosh machine."

Kapor said his current project, Chandler, is moving from pre-Alpha to alpha this year and should be released in a 1.0 version as early as the first part of 2006.