Petreley's column: The Open Source: Linux reaches critical point

If you talk privately with representatives from ISVs, you'll find that they have been itching for ages to rally behind some platform other than Windows. Microsoft has left such a long trail of dead bodies that few ISVs remain in denial about the consequences of promoting Windows as a dominant platform.

They know that, given the opportunity, Microsoft always will use Windows to put its competition out of business. The last remaining hope for any ISV is that Microsoft will not consider it a competitor. But as Microsoft expands into every conceivable market, the chances of remaining out of the company's sights are slim to none.

Advocates within the Linux circle would love to believe that high-profile vendors are now rallying behind Linux because of the benefits of open source and because Linux is such a high-quality operating system.

Is that your final answer? Bzzt. Sorry. To be sure, open source offers unique benefits. And Linux is a high-quality operating system, especially if you measure quality in stability and a lean design. But let's pepper this with a little truth, shall we? First of all, the popularity of Linux isn't tied strictly to the quality of the Linux kernel. An awful lot of the credit for the awesome growth of Linux should go to Apache, Samba, GNU utilities, Netscape Communicator, and more. Most, if not all, of this software doesn't just run on Linux. Most of it isn't open-source at all, and some of it isn't open-source in the GNU Free Software Foundation sense of the term. So if you want to credit open source for the popularity of Linux, you'll have to do so with many qualifications.

And as for quality, Linux isn't the ideal operating system by any means. For example, it barely supports threads. And what it does support is difficult to debug and maintain because Linux can't do something as simple as provide core dumps for all the threads of an application when it fails.

The truth is that most ISVs are rallying behind Linux as the alternative to Windows because Linux has perceived momentum. Linux gained this perception in part because it successfully ran the above-mentioned software and in part because a few journalists took notice of the quality and flexibility of this renegade operating system and gave it positive ink. It certainly didn't hurt that Linux was free, both as in free speech and free beer. The cost of experimenting with Linux was extremely low. And Linux fit right in with the Internet revolution, because Linux is essentially Unix, upon which the Internet is built. This made Linux a natural choice for the ISP market, where Linux gained real momentum, not just perception.

When the Microsoft antitrust trial opened an opportunity for high-profile ISVs to voice support for Linux, the ISVs chose the operating system with the perceived momentum: Linux. Even so, companies such as Oracle and Netscape Communications were lukewarm in their announced support. IBM and Intel took a stronger position on Linux, probably because both had just lost significant battles with Microsoft. IBM practically had to kill OS/2 to get a reasonable OEM price for Windows 95. And Microsoft was thumbing its nose at Intel by choosing non-Intel chips for its Windows CE operating system. The endorsements by IBM, Intel, and others gave Linux greater credibility, which in turn continued to fuel its perceived momentum.

But now these ISVs are dealing with the hard realities of Linux. And it ain't as pretty as everyone might have hoped.

Like it or not, Linux is not as advanced as many other versions of Unix. That can make porting existing Unix server applications to Linux difficult. And vendors are quickly finding that they can't solve design and documentation issues the same way they did when they supported commercial brands of Unix. Linux simply isn't developed and supported the same way as AIX, Solaris, or HP-UX.

Next week I'll address how the Linux distributors have been dealing with these issues and why they had better start rethinking their strategies or they will actually encourage ISVs to help two separate Baby Bill Microsoft companies claim the server and applications space on the Internet.

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

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