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Illustration by Jeremy Russell

Linux Capitalist Sluts

What happens when open source sells out

By Annalee Newitz

LIKE A LOT OF LINUX geeks, I tried to tune into ZDTV's live video coverage of the Big Announcement From Transmeta, Linus "Linux" Torvalds' corporation of choice. After months of secret plotting and Pentagon-style information leakage control, Transmeta was finally unveiling its ostensible product: the fabulous, one-volt Crusoe chip (already with its own iconography for better branding)--perfect for all your embedded technology needs and mobile computerized wingdings.

Behind the media frenzy--which included some swell Transmeta umbrellas for the press--was megawatt Internet star and poster babe Torvalds, grinning his usual "regular geek" smile for the covers of tech publications everywhere. Although he's our open-source superhero, just a few days before he had been telling the Linux core development newsgroup that he planned to start seriously keeping tabs on people using the Linux name and penguin logo.

Torvalds' rationale was pragmatic: Now that throwing Linux into your name or biz plan can mean getting the VCs hotter and hornier, it makes sense that Torvalds would want to start policing his trademark. And yet the whole thing, combined with his participation in the Super Secret Transmeta Corp, left a bad taste in my mouth.

Torvalds is supposed to be an open-source guru, but he's getting proprietary on our ass. He's working for a company so secretive that it's practically legendary. On top of that, he seems to feel that he's been forced into a situation where "his" trademark is under siege from the rest of the industry.

Let's face it: Linux is in danger of becoming a capitalist plaything. It's morphing into a mere brand, a word plastered on trinkets handed out during promotional campaigns.

The whole ugly scenario makes me think of last year's infamous "Linux goth slut" email from "Mike," whose bizarre thousand-word rant got sent out to a Linux advocacy newsgroup. (FYI: to read Mike's email, just type "linux goth slut" into the search engine at deja.com.) Mike, a former Red Hat developer dork whose sex life has become far more notorious than his coding skills, wrote a psychotic, breathy description of his encounter at a convention with a woman he referred to as a Linux goth slut. In his email, Mike offered readers an embarrassing, blow-by-blow description of having sex with this woman--whom he admitted frightened the hell out of him with a combination of "whorish" sexual aggression and an extensive knowledge of Linux.

Ultimately it was unclear whether Mike was more disturbed by her sexual openness or the fact that she obviously had a brain. What was clear was that Mike had sent this email out in a strangely misguided effort to save his reputation after all those industry bigwigs at the convention saw him sucking face with "the slut." He seemed to want people to know that he wasn't generally a naughty boy; he was really an innocent geek. This "slut" had practically forced him into so-called bad behavior involving drugs, sex toys and pillow talk about Windows managers.

Of course, the email sparked incredible controversy and anger in the Linux community, and a lengthy thread on this particular advocacy newsgroup. To their credit, most Linux-oids took the same position that my hero Rick Moen did: They thought Mike was a slanderous birdbrain.

What I think is interesting about the whole Mike SNAFU was that his tall tale of Linux slutdom took place at the very convention where his ultra-whorish company Red Hat was hopping in bed with all the industry partners and VCs who helped make Red Hat the first-ever open source sellout corporation. There's nothing like a good sex scandal to distract a community from the real issues at stake. I mean, who cares about Mike's inability to deal with strong women when Red Hat is turning Linux into the shiny little commodity we never wanted it to be?

All I'm trying to say is that when you receive information, it's important to separate the real stuff from the titillating distraction. The question is, what might the Transmeta announcement be distracting you from?


Annalee Newitz tabloid@jps.net is a surly media nerd who wants Linux goth sluts to be her best friends.

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From the February 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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