Petreley's column: The Open Source

It has been fascinating watching the Linux roller-coaster ride in the stock market during the past several months, particularly Corel and VA Linux Systems. Corel originally saw a nice bump in its stock after redefining itself somewhat as a Linux company. VA Linux broke IPO records only to plummet afterward to a reasonably priced stock. Looking forward, I'm confident in VA Linux, but somewhat ambivalent about the future of Corel.

Corel has excellent collateral, but Corel strikes me as sloppy with its execution. Take Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux, the superb new suite for Linux. If there is a realistic Linux alternative to Microsoft Office on Windows, this is it. It is almost identical to its Windows counterpart because much of the suite runs on Corel's version of Wine. (Wine is an open source programming interface that brings most of the Win32 API to Linux.)Now before I get to the downside, I can't emphasise enough how much I like this productivity suite. You'll have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers before I'll switch back to StarOffice, and I really like StarOffice. That said, I confess one of the first things WordPerfect Office 2000 did for me was crash. And I can't get it to print on any Linux platform other than Corel Linux.

The first thing that occurred to me is that WordPerfect may have these problems because it still has too much Windows code left in it. It doesn't matter whether or not I'm right. A lot of folks are going to suspect the same thing. It will be hard to trust WordPerfect until Corel produces a version that is free of Windows contamination.

My advice to Corel is to fish or cut bait on its commitment to Linux. Corel stands to benefit more in the long run if it raises a family of native Linux applications rather than persisting with Windows half-breeds.

Planning ahead

In contrast, VA Linux is 100 percent all-beef Linux. There is one very big reason I have confidence in VA as a Linux and open-source company: Larry Augustin. Larry has outstanding instincts about the Linux market. Most of all, he knows whom to hire. He already has some of the most exceptional people in the Linux community working at VA.

You probably know VA Linux as the company that sells computers preloaded with Linux, because that's how it got started. (Back then it was called VA Research.) VA has branched out into supplying server appliances and cluster solutions.

But the biggest mistake you can make about VA Linux is to consider it strictly a Linux hardware company. VA is becoming the premier supplier of Linux information, services, and support. The only thing VA doesn't seem to want to do is create its own Linux distribution. VA is remaining neutral in that area, although it has shown support for the noncommercial Debian GNU/Linux.

I don't know any other company that is building the brand equity VA is accumulating. In fact, I can only think of one other company that sells Linux hardware and has been building a reputation for investing in Linux's future: IBM. I can't help wondering if Larry Augustin ever dreamed someday his closest competition would be the likes of IBM.

VA built this brand equity in several ways. For one thing, VA owns the high-traffic site Linux.com. In addition, VA absorbed several Linux and open-source sites when it purchased Andover in February. Visit www.andover.net for a list. Many of these sites are considered essential reading in the Linux community. Freshmeat (freshmeat.net), which tracks new and updated Linux-related software, is my particular favorite. I often check it several times a day.

And VA is the company that runs SourceForge (sourceforge.net), which provides the open-source community with free development resources. The SourceForge site hosts many projects including the one for which I work, Linux Standard Base. SourceForge has become the most visible place for developers to discuss, download, and contribute to projects that most interest them.

It's unlikely VA Linux is making any money on these Web resources. But it is all part of a strategy that makes VA Linux one of the most exciting Linux companies to watch.

Nicholas Petreley is the founding editor of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com), contributing editor for InfoWorld, and works with the Linux Standard Base. Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com.

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