Before the Soviet Union collapsed, the Communist state had a vast manufacturing base. The problem was that the quality of most of what it manufactured was rubbish. Take a look at any Soviet era car and you'll get the idea.
Why was that? Talking to a Russian engineer the other day let's call him Yuri I asked him why Soviet manufacturers so rarely improved or updated the goods they used to make. "If they did that," Yuri told me, "they would have hurt the other factories that made similar goods. Why would they have wanted to do that? The other factories weren't competitors, they were friends."
Now we all know in a capitalist system, the competition is there to be crushed. Inefficient companies or those with inferior products lose out to better companies and products, and the principal of survival of the fittest means the consumer gets an ever better deal.
OK, enough economics 101, already. The reason I mention all this stems from an offer made by Ubuntu head honcho Mark Shuttleworth to put some of his staff to work on the Debian distro, to help Debian developers get ready for a proposed code freeze in December. Underlying this is a desire on Shuttleworth's part to get as many distros release cycles as possible "in sync," which would, Shuttleworth believes, benefit the entire Linux community from the distros themselves to upstream developers and end users.
In an e-mail to the Debian-project mailing list last week with the rather grand and manifesto-like subject line "On cadence and collaboration," Shuttleworth said:
Here, we are talking about ... something that the world has never seen in proprietary software (and never will) an entire industry collaborating. Collaboration is the primary tool we have in our battle with proprietary software, we should take the opportunities that present themselves to make that collaboration easier and more effective.
It's interesting stuff, not least because what Shuttleworth is saying, on the surface, anyway, is very similar to that Soviet-era thinking. Far from wanting to hurt Debian or any other distro, Ubuntu sees other distros as friends. By collaborating, everyone wins. The weak distros get stronger, they don't get crushed.
So what about good old fashioned capitalist survival of the fittest and all that? What will drive Linux to improve? At the enterprise level, the obvious answer is Microsoft. Yes, Microsoft is the friend of Linux: It provides competition, something Soviet manufacturers didn't have. In the server room, enterprises can choose between UNIX, Linux and Windows, and Linux as a whole will flourish only if those responsible for it make sure that it is a more attractive proposition than the other two.
The reason Soviet manufacturers delivered such rubbish was because they collaborated instead of competing. What may lead to Microsoft's demise is that it could end up being too small to compete with the seemingly endless supply of developer talent willing to contribute to Linux for free.
Linux is in the rather enviable position of potentially having the best of both worlds healthy competition and priceless collaboration. Shuttleworth is no Communist: He simply understands that combining competition and collaboration makes for an operating system that will be very hard, in the long run, for anyone else to beat.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.