Does Linux Need a Business Model?

Yeah, like a fish needs a bicycle.

I keep reading pundits' claims that Linux needs a business model. ``Linux is a great operating system, but what's the business model?'' ``Linux will never succeed without a business model.'' Idiots! Linux isn't a business! Why should it need a business model?

Linux is a genre of software (which itself is a genre of literature), the same way that jazz is a genre of music. Does anyone ask whether jazz has a business model? Or music, for that matter? There is a huge variety of business models in music: garage bands, lounge acts, symphony orchestras, hole-in-the-wall recording studios, mail-order CD pressers, coffeehouses, and so on. There are a few huge record companies that make a lot of money, but if they disappeared it would make only a minuscule difference in the total amount of music in the world.

Let's push this analogy a little further. There are lots of ways to make music, and lots of ways to make money out of some aspect of the music business, but when you get down to it music is made by people who would probably be doing it even if they weren't paid -- and most of them aren't. So is software. A lot of musicians have ``day jobs'' and a few are even music-related: session musicians, cover bands, music teachers. But most of that music never gets recorded or sold. Same thing with software -- most of it is made for local use in corporate IT departments, or made to be embedded in gadgets like cell phones and washing machines.

Hardly any music is actually burned onto CD's and sold; the same goes for software. A handful of companies, and a few score of their tame performers in the most popular genres, make most of the money, and most of the music that's packaged and sold -- an insipid, lowest-common-denominator product that people buy only because it's heavily hyped and everyone else is buying it. Meanwhile, thousands of dedicated musicians, composers, and songwriters are making fantastic music because they have a song that has to come out whether anyone hears it or not. If you want the good stuff you pick a couple of your favorites, go to their gigs in bars, coffeehouses, and church basements, and buy their self-produced CD's when they finally get around to making them.

Software, too, has a handful of big companies selling overhyped junk to the masses, while thousands of dedicated programmers are doing fabulous work just because they like to, or have an itch that needs scratching. And if Microsoft is like a record company hyping the latest teen sensations -- never mind if they can sing -- Linux is more like jazz.

Popular music tends to be a flashy floor show wrapped around something that resembles music if you don't listen too carefully: there's a business model for that, and record companies are very good at it. They build up a young singer with a great body and a little talent, lock them in with a contract just this side of illegal, and exploit them as long as they can. They sell CD's with copy protection, and stage huge, flashy concerts with expensive tickets and security guards to protect the star from their public.

Jazz and folk are more community-based: darned-near anyone can pick up a guitar, write a song or do their own personal take on someone else's, and sing it at an open mic in their neighborhood coffeehouse. If it's good, they'll gradually develop a reputation and a following and maybe make a little money. Hardly anyone gets really rich, not even the little record companies that specialize in these genres. They're not nasty enough. But, and here's the important part: people get great music that they don't have to pay monopoly prices for, made by real people they can talk to after their gig.

Software is remarkably similar. Microsoft makes lots of money, locking their programmers in with stock options that will make them rich only if the company's stock keeps rising, locking their customers in with monopoly tactics after sucking them in with hype, and emphasizing flashy UIs and feature checklists over real usability and stability. Prices are high, and feedback from the public is negligible. Report a bug and maybe it will get fixed in the next release, which of course you'll have to pay for.

Linux and the other open-source operating systems are part of a loose, diverse community of programmers and users. Nobody is making huge amounts of money, but the community as a whole is getting an enormous amount of quality software at a reasonable price. Feedback is immediate: developers sign their work, and likely as not a bug report will be answered by a patch in return mail.

Remember: Microsoft is a software company, like Sony is a record company. Linux is a genre, like jazz is a genre. Microsoft and Sony have business models; Linux and jazz don't need them.

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Stephen R. Savitzky <>