Nine Current Flame Wars in Open Source

Want to pick an argument about Linux? You’ve got a lot of choices.
Posted February 16, 2011

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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Whatever else you can say about the personal computer, the Internet, and social media, all of them have greatly increased our ability to argue with each other. In the last three decades, flame wars have become the norm, with some, like the Mac vs. Windows shouting match becoming part of popular culture long after the original distinctions ceased to be relevant.

However, no part of computing ignites flame wars like free and open source software (FOSS) and the Linux community. The intelligence and multiple interests of the community -- to say nothing of the frenetic pace of development compared to the rest of the IT world -- make disagreements inevitable, and the general outspokenness guarantees that many disagreements will run wild and become flame wars.

The number of flame wars at any one time is impossible to count. However, here are nine of the hottest arguments in FOSS at the moment:

1) Ubuntu vs. Everybody

As one (if not the) most popular and influential distributions, Ubuntu is a magnet for criticism -- some valid, some less so.

Ubuntu has been criticized as a freeloader on Debian, the kernel, or free software in general, and as an effort to make over Linux in Windows' or Apple's image. Even small development and distribution decisions, such as whether to include The GIMP in the default install or the positioning of title bar buttons have been attacked. Sometimes, Ubuntu cannot seem to do anything without attracting criticism.

The criticism is aggravated by the fact that, although Ubuntu often acts like a community distribution in day-to-day matters, major decisions are often made -- and unilaterally imposed -- by either its founder Mark Shuttleworth or his circle of advisors at Canonical. Often, too, Ubuntu's leaders are slow to respond to public opinion.

But whatever its sources or validity, the criticism of Ubuntu is a sign of its influence in FOSS. The criticism is probably not so much a sign of jealousy as an indication that what Ubuntu does matters.

2) GNOME vs. KDE

As the two most popular desktops for Linux, GNOME and KDE are natural rivals. Each has its own set of productivity applications and utilities, its own widget toolkit, and its own guidelines about how applications are supposed to look and operate.

However, some of the intensity seems to go back to the earliest days of free software, when KDE's Qt toolkit was not available under a free license, and the GNOME project was started as alternative.

The rivalry is mostly among users. Developers sometimes express it, but, these days, the two projects work to maintain common desktop standards to improve interoperability, and have even shared conference space. The rivalry may intensify when GNOME 3.0 is released, and users have the choice of two very differently designed desktops.

3) Mono, Pro and Con

Mono is a FOSS implementation of Microsoft's .NET Framework. Although MONO is FOSS in itself, Mono is dependent on resources that Microsoft has not released for general use, and many worry that it might become the basis for a patent infringement case. Supporters counter that Mono is a first rate development platform, and suggest that the current licenses on .NET resources are adequate guarantees for their safe use.

Ordinarily, such a geeky flame war would never attract popular interest. But the debate is especially bitter because of the widespread distrust of Microsoft in the FOSS community. To further complicate matters, Miguel de Icaza, the founder of Mono and its chief public representative, is outspoken even by FOSS standards, and many of the criticisms of Mono become personal attacks on him.

Currently, the debate is relatively quiet. However, the issue never quite goes away if you search the blogs, and is certain to flare up again. It always does.

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Tags: open source, Ubuntu, Linux desktop, Linux downloads, KDE

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