Linux distributors are dropping like flies

In spite of the fact that MandrakeSoft Inc. boasts that it is the hottest Linux distributor in retail sales, its retail product is a loss leader. SuSE Linux AG has laid off two-thirds of its U.S. employees. TurboLinux Inc. is cutting back on its workforce and may soon wed Linuxcare to refocus its efforts onto services. Stormix, a commercial distributor that based its offering on Debian, has recently filed for bankruptcy. Corel Corp. is getting nowhere with its Linux distribution. In other words, most Linux distributions, even the ones whose market share is growing each year, are concluding that they can't make money selling Linux.

Welcome to the reality of selling a free operating system. There are a number of reasons Linux distributors are dying or shrinking and, I predict, will soon be consolidating. The first and foremost is that most Linux distributors continue to base their added value on things such as making installation easier or adding packages to the CD-ROM.

Once upon a time these were among the primary selling points of a Linux distributor. But now that Linux is being widely adopted, the focus has changed. Businesses care less about ease of installation and more about whether their choice of Linux installs and runs on their hardware. In many cases, they are buying server hardware with Linux preinstalled.

And when it comes to software packages, businesses care less about what comes on the CD-ROM and more about whether they can install software that is available via the Internet or from independent software vendors. This latter issue haunts almost all distributors except Red Hat Inc., because Red Hat is the de facto standard. To some extent Mandrake is immune because it is largely Red Hat-compatible. But users of other distributions are all too familiar with the problems of installing software from the Internet. Just because Caldera Systems Inc., SuSE, TurboLinux, and the like are RPM-based distributions like Red Hat does not mean you can expect to install any RPM-based software package without difficulty. You can't.

The biggest shame is that some distributors have a lot of true added value to offer, such as specialized software, training, and services, but they aren't getting the opportunities to market these advantages properly due to the incompatibility of their base system with the de facto standard, Red Hat.

Linux Standard Base (LSB) is the first step toward solving this problem. Now that Scott McNeil has been appointed executive director of the Free Standards Group, the mother organization of LSB, I have more confidence that we will see an LSB standard emerge in the very near future.

More important, all of the distributors need to agree on a much more comprehensive standard. It makes no sense for dozens of distributors to duplicate research and development efforts to create products that perpetuate the incompatibilities that hinder their own growth. If instead they all agreed to start with a comprehensive Linux base distribution and add value from there, they could spend their time working on the kind of added value that really means something to today's business Linux customers. They would have a realistic chance to compete based on their added value because their sales would not be stunted by the compatibility problems that exist today.

The only company unlikely to eagerly endorse such a standard is Red Hat. But if all the other major distributors put together a coalition quickly, there is still time to put a lot of pressure on Red Hat to play ball. All the other distributions combined have a larger worldwide market share than Red Hat alone. If they can agree on a standard and get it out the door quickly, then this new coalition standard would become the de facto standard, and Red Hat would suddenly become the incompatible distribution.

Red Hat would inevitably hop on board. At that point, all Linux distributors could stop wasting time managing the base distribution and instead focus on developing and marketing added value in the form of high-level software and services.

Nicholas Petreley is the founding editor of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com). Reach him at nicholas@petreley.com.

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