Shields up, Linux

Does a desperate SCO have a leg to stand on? Is a conniving Microsoft really behind The SCO Group? Is Linux headed for a deep freeze? Those were among the questions being hurled about last week as angry users and industry observers reacted to the latest salvos fired against operating system upstart Linux.

First, B-grade vendor SCO filed a $US1 billion lawsuit against IBM, charging that its intellectual property had made its way into IBM’s Linux distribution. Then there was the not-so-shocking revelation last week that Microsoft, which just licensed SCO’s Unix technology, has been quietly urging its sales staff to offer huge discounts to users in order to undercut Linux. Also last week, SCO suddenly dropped out of the Linux market and threatened users with intellectual property violations. That action has made a few people nervous, and ticked off many. (Mailing threatening letters to 1358 CEOs of Fortune 2000 companies is not on the Harvard Business School’s list of top 10 ways to win new business and influence the installed base. It’s a bad move in any economy, much less this one.)

The cynics say the lawsuits and threats are a last-ditch effort by a has-been company pushing its has-been version of Unix. The conspiracy theorists see Microsoft’s hand behind SCO’s actions. Still other observers warn against a rush to judgment, dismissing paranoia about Microsoft’s shadowy role and preferring to hear SCO out before making up their minds.

If SCO were smart, it would continue to support both Unix and Linux. It’s already invested in the UnitedLinux consortium to build a standard release of the operating system. Momentum is clearly behind the still-maturing Linux, which is increasingly being seen as the successor to its OS papa, Unix, and the great hope of the anti-Microsoft crowd. So why not be open to that?

Instead, SCO is cutting off its nose to spite its face. A loss or slowdown for Linux is really a win for Windows — not Unix. That’s certainly the battlefield as Microsoft sees it, and it has the slush fund, er, firepower, to make that perception reality. And there’s no end of online posts from users swearing they will never buy another SCO product and from developers seeking to expel the company from the open-source community. That’s not good for a vendor hoping to maintain relationships — though perfectly fine for business executives hoping to unload a company, which is yet another theory being bandied about.

It’s all bad for Linux in any case, and it’s bad for those who want technology choices. Ultimately, it’s bad for users, especially those pioneers who have taken the Linux plunge. At a minimum, it has the potential to take a lot of wind out of Linux’s sails. How IT reacts to this pincer move by SCO and Microsoft should carry a lot of weight.

But fear not. Open-source is here to stay. Too many people want choices, and they especially want out from under the tyranny of the Windows-only boot.

The real page-turner here is not what Microsoft will do (we know it will do everything it can to dominate whatever market it’s in), or who prevails in the SCO/IBM lawsuit. It’s what the Linux camp will do. Will they fold up their tents and go home, or press on, adding to the momentum behind Linux and keeping the open-source banner flying? Stay tuned. This can only get more interesting.

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