Linux is a process, not a product

I wrote an opinion piece called Reconsidering Linux for CNET News.com that was published on July 30 (I was at LinuxWorld last week, so I’m just now getting a chance to post this):

Proclamations of Linux’s commercial success are frequently punctuated with statements about how some analyst firm has found that sales have grown faster than has any operating system since 1999, or that Linux server shipments make it the second most popular operating system for servers.

To me, this kind of “Linux as product” mentality misses the entire point of Linux and the open-source development model that created it.

Linux is not a product. Rather, Linux is a collection of software components, individually crafted by thousands of independent hands around the world, with each component changing and evolving on its own independent timetable.

To think of Linux as a product is to freeze an inherently dynamic thing in time and to close something that is inherently open. It cannot be done without losing something–and something significant at that.

No, Linux is not a product. It is a

process.

[...]

The article was linked to/republished at a number of sites, including Slashdot, OSNews, ZDNet, and a few other places. Some interesting discussion ensued.

Some people clearly got it, and others clearly didn’t. (This is usually obvious when “marketing hype” and “ideological” are used to describe your point of view in the same discussion thread.)

A number of people said, “But it has to be a product! Otherwise, how can you sell it?” This line of argument proves my point—so many people are used to thinking about operating systems as products that they assume this new and very different operating system called “Linux” must automatically be made to fit the same mold. Trouble is, the fact that Linux is new and different is precisely why everyone is interested in it. Linux-as-product is the proverbial square peg in a round hole—sure, you might be able to get the square peg through the round hole if you push hard enough, but the thing that comes out the other side is round, not square.

Others pointed out that customers buy products, not processes. A very good point. However, I never said that selling products was a bad idea; rather, I said that Linux isn’t the product customers want to buy. Customers want to buy products that Linux enables, whether it’s a less expensive desktop OS, an open-standards-based point-of-sale or NAS solution that doesn’t lock them in to a platform vendor, or a device like TiVo that does something completely new and innovative. In fact, the customer often doesn’t even need to know the product is based on Linux—in most cases, quite frankly, that is completely irrelevant.

Ok, so Linux is a process, not a product. How do you build a business around that? I have a few ideas. My customers aren’t the end users, but rather the various product vendors that have decided to base their products on Linux, whether it’s because they don’t have to pay a royalty to Microsoft for every unit they ship, or because they don’t want to be locked in to a platform vendor, or because they appreciate the unprecedented ability to customize and integrate that Linux provides. Point is, my customers want to buy the power that Linux brings to bear, and that power lies largely in the process used to create it, not the end product that is one instance of the process used to create it.

Several people pointed out that it is open source that is the process, not just Linux. That too is a very good point. However, I am trying to relate the problem (and sell my solution) in terms of what the market already understands. Yes, Linux is just one component of what is typically called “Linux”. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in the minds of millions, “Linux” also encompasses many other open source projects, in much the same way that “Windows” encompasses more than just the OS but also numerous other projects inside Microsoft, like IE and Windows Media Player.

The following comment sums it up best, from my point of view: “Linux is a product developed by a process. The point is that it’s the process, not the product, that makes Linux special.” Well said. In the end, what is truly different and exciting about Linux is not Linux the technology, but the manner in which Linux comes together—the process of assembling components from far-flung contributors into what we all think of as “Linux”. It is the process and the resulting ecosystem around Linux that is of value. To the extent that a handful of companies are trying to “productize” the ecosystem, the ecosystem that is of value will become far less valuable. That is what keeps me up at night.

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