On Thursday morning, VA Linux, a vendor of computer hardware preinstalled with the Linux-based operating system, announced that it is spending around $1 billion in cash and stock to purchase Andover.net, a collection of Web sites that includes Slashdot, the Net's premier source for news and rumors about open-source software.
For me, as was no doubt the case with many of Slashdot's fans, the news, coming right in the thick of the LinuxWorld convention taking place in New York, was a bit of a shock. Wasn't VA Linux one of the companies we depend on Slashdot to cover? I immediately flashed back to the last time I had seen Slashdot founder Rob Malda, at last August's LinuxWorld in San Jose.
Back then, sitting on a bean-bag chair on the exhibition room floor, Malda
looked like the proverbial cat who ate the canary. It wasn't just that Slashdot had been purchased a little over a month earlier by Andover.net, netting Malda a tasty bucket of cash and stock options. But that day, at LinuxWorld, Andover.net had announced the purchase of another prominent open-source Web site -- Freshmeat, a clearinghouse for access to updated versions of open-source software programs. Malda didn't even try to disguise his cocky grin when a glum VA Linux employee congratulated him on Andover.net's coup. He just laughed.
VA Linux had badly wanted Freshmeat. Heck, the company, like every other major player in the Linux world, had also passionately desired Slashdot. But Malda and his comrade in arms, Jeff Bates, had rejected VA Linux. As Malda told me at LinuxWorld, while tapping away at his laptop to funnel updates to his Web site, one of his main concerns in choosing who Slashdot would be acquired by was that it not be a Linux company. The potential for compromising Slashdot's editorial integrity would be too great.
So, here we are, hardly six months later, learning suddenly that VA Linux will soon be the proud owner of Andover.net, and, by extension, Slashdot. Sure, we'll hear all the usual statements about how editorial integrity won't be compromised. And sure, VA Linux CEO Larry Augustin can boast a proud and untrammelled record of doing right by the open-source software community. It would certainly be hard to imagine a potential owner more likely to respect Slashdot's independence.
But the news should still send a chill down the spine of anyone wondering how the idealism that fuels open-source vigor will fare in this new age of free software -- this era in which publicly owned companies use their inflated stock prices to wheel and deal their way forward. It just doesn't matter what Rob Malda said or did six months ago. He is no longer the master of his own fate. Increasingly, the individuals who helped raise free software to the prominence it enjoys today are beholden to new entities -- boards of directors, shareholders, fluctuating stock prices and daisy chains of corporate bureaucracies. Slashdot has always been a conduit for news and rumors about free-software companies; will that conduit continue to include potentially sensitive information about VA Linux? One imagines not.
Malda says, however, that he's got a really good contract. "They can't
touch the content. Nothing on my side will change."
"I can't control what the audience says or thinks," he adds, "but I hope
they'll be cool with it. VA has done a lot of good for the community, and
they won't jeopardize that by screwing with Slashdot -- they have a lot to
Malda is a delightfully ornery soul who surely will not take kindly to being told what he can or cannot do. Slashdot readers can count on that. But isn't this a case in which Caesar's wife must be above suspicion? Malda declined to be purchased by VA Linux last year because he wanted to avoid even the perception that Slashdot might not be its own editorial master.
Too bad. That perception exists now, and there's little that Malda can do to change it. The world of free software is all the poorer for it.