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Linux revolution goes 9 to 5

The prickly, antiauthoritarian programmers who have championed Linux will have to adjust to its evolving buttoned-down image.

Would Leon Trotsky attend a vendor breakfast?

That is the sort of question that Robert Young, the president of Red Hat Software, will have to start asking himself on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the answer won't be easy to find.

To recap, Red Hat, which makes a shrink-wrapped version of the Linux operating system, announced earlier this week that Intel and Netscape have taken equity investments in it. For the most part, the money will be used to build a fleet of consultants "technical marketing folk" who can popularize Linux with the members of the Fortune 500.

The rub, of course, is that a lot of the champions of the Linux operating system tend to be the kind of prickly, antiauthoritarian programmers who openly despise technical marketing folk, much less the plodding blockheads of the Fortune 500. Speak in less-than-glowing terms about Linux and--oops!--instantly there are 125 hate-mail messages in your in-box. Many of the messages read like the New Hampshire state motto. "REMEMBER LINUX IS FREE and OPEN" wrote one fan today. "Hope you have the balls to actually look at this."

This bristly sense of independence comes understandably with the territory. Linux exists to be a thorn in the side of corporate America. Linux is a Unix-like operating system with publicly available source code. That means, essentially, that users can adjust the OS to their tastes.

It also means that Linux licenses are free or extremely cheap. Red Hat sells its version for $50, far less than what Microsoft, Digital, Sun, and others charge for competing software. In one fell swoop, users get better software and get to decimate the balance sheets of the computing powers that be.

'We want something different, and we want something better. Red Hat has won a lot of friends by hiring popular and talented developers so they can work on Linux and eat, too," said Seth Burgess, a helpful and reasonable Linux source. "They haven't been asked to sell their soul or anything."

In a way, I actually envy Linux advocates. Like many, I yearned to be a revolutionary in my younger days. I yearned to live among the downtrodden, yet dignified, of some unspecified third-world nation. I would have to live in squalor, but a payoff would eventually come in the form of gunfire, action, and historical redemption.

Two things happened along the way. First, I met peasants. They were my relatives. Although many started as laborers in this country, the last thing they wanted was my help. Instead, they aspired to live in a suburban home, smoke Kent cigarettes, and chop the meat at family barbecues.

Second, I met revolutionaries. This occurred at college. They fought against oppression, which at the time seemed to be alternatively embodied by the board of trustees, the interfraternity council, and the comparative lit department. While I'm sure they meant well, only two characteristics stuck out in my mind about them: They always wore sweaters no matter what the weather and they could fit any cause into the "Hey, hey/Ho, ho" rhyme scheme. The desire to bring down The Man left me. Instead, I channeled my revolutionary urges into attending graduate school, but doing really poorly.

Intel's investment into Red Hat holds the same potential for romantic deflation. With the investment, Red Hat joins the Rat Pack of corporate computing. Gone are the days of scoffing at the idiocy of corporate sales drones. Now Linux advocates will have to glad-hand them, be polite, and say nice things. "Have you got enough to eat? The presentation begins soon. Are you sure you don't want any eggs?" It's not half as much fun as being surly and uncommunicative.

Young himself recognizes the dilemma.. The investments will allow Linux fans to bring the OS into corporations with the support of--rather than despite the objections of--IT managers, he said. Young is also Canadian, which, if you are part of a movement bent on toppling the culture of corporate America, is probably a handy thing to be.

Still, he knows it won't be easy. "It's sort of like Speaker's Corner in London. You can stand on a Linux newsgroup and talk about your philosophy of life?It's very much like democracy," he said. "That's a hugely entertaining part of this business.

"You can be sure that we have our work cut out for us convincing [people] why this isn't a threat," he added.

Michael Kanellos no longer wants to be a revolutionary, but he's still surly and uncommunicative.