Linux: Model for New Media?

The Business Week cover story, Linux Inc., got me thinking about the ways in which open source software development is a model for web-based new media — and how the differences between code-writing and content creation may make open source a difficult model to apply.

The article was rich with tidbits about Linus Torvalds and his leadership style. But I focused on a quote from Harvard Law School Internet guru James F. Moore : “Linux is the first natural business ecosystem.”

Actually, the Internet deserves that label. But if we agree that Linux is the business ecosystem with the cutest mascot, the question becomes what environmental factors enabled it to thrive.

Business Week reporter Steve Hamm put his finger on it when he wrote “IBM, HP, and others capitalize on the ability to sell machines without any upfront charges for an operating system license” by installing Linux instead of Microsoft. In short — and this is my take — powerful firms took Linux under their wing because it helped them save money and humble Microsoft.

To some extent, similar forces are in place to help grassroots web-media achieve some commercial scale vis a vis mass media. For instance, I’m blogging for free courtesy of Google which owns Blogger. I could use AdSense or some other affiliate network to bring in linked advertising (for latte money). And these affiliates are promising lower cost ad placement than mass media.

But differences between software and media limit the transferability of the Linux model. For starters, software demands interoperability, and that enforces a certain discipline on open source software efforts. Stuff either works or it doesn’t. And even when differences in approach arise, I would think there are more objective criteria for picking one code strategy over another.

With media, on the other hand, there is rarely a single right approach to any creative work. That leaves lots of room for disagreement. And while individual productions often require teamwork by specialists, I don’t see how individual productions will be packaged together in an orderly fashion so that people can find whatever content they want. Perhaps content will aggregate by affinity groups, in magazine-like formats, tailored to dog lovers or Christian Midwesterners, or lesbians. Content could also come together in regional, citywide or neighborhood collections that parallel existing media.

Not to diminish the Linux phenomenon, but those folks had a relatively simple task — make better software to run on existing computers. New media pioneers have to make better or at least different content. And they also have to invent new structures within which people can access their creations. That’s going to be a tough ecosystem to create.

Tom Abate