Linux the OS Reaches New Pinnacle

Thanks to its free-speech and free-beer nature, the success of Linux itself is in the bag. Even Dell Computer Corp. CEO Michael "How high did you say I should jump, Bill?" Dell has figured out that he can make more money by preloading a free operating system on his machines than by paying Microsoft Corp. a tax for every unit sold.

Those who still believe Microsoft and Windows 2000 are the safe choices on which to bet their company's future just aren't paying attention. IDG World Expo packed the San Jose Convention Center to its limits for this year's LinuxWorld Expo and had to turn away dozens of vendors who were ready to pony up the cash for floor space. As a result, LinuxWorld Expo will be held at the San Francisco Moscone Center next year to accommodate the rapid growth of the Linux market. Dell was the keynote speaker at LinuxWorld Expo and managed to turn many critics of the company into fans with his convincing support for Linux. IBM Corp. has forsaken Monterey, the high-volume enterprise-class Unix project; Big Blue instead will focus more on Linux.

Microsoft is an expert at momentum marketing, so no doubt we'll see Microsoft manufacture some numbers to convince people that Windows 2000 is catching on like wildfire. But Microsoft will have trouble making those numbers jibe with how the vendor community is reacting to Windows 2000. The following says it all: IDG World Expo canceled this fall's Windows 2000 conference for lack of interest. If Windows 2000 is anything like wildfire, it's because the OS is going down in flames.

The success of some of today's Linux companies is not so certain, however. Many new Linux companies I visited on the floor at LinuxWorld Expo have wonderful ideas and superb technology but little or no business plan. Even most of the established Linux vendors still haven't figured out how to make the kind of money expected of a public company.

This is precisely why I felt the highlight of this LinuxWorld Expo was the executive round table hosted by Patricia Sabga, co-anchor of the New Economy Watch on CNNfn. Patricia grilled Larry Augustin, CEO of VA Linux Systems; Ransom Love, CEO of Caldera Systems; Art Tyde, executive vice president of Linuxcare; Volker Wiegand, president of SuSE; and Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat to find out where the money will be made in this new market.

Mostly her questions revealed that these folks are schizophrenic about standards. On one hand, distributors all recognize that ISVs don't want to support multiple distributions. When Patricia pointed out that the Linux Standard Base (LSB) "isn't exactly progressing at the speed of light," the distributors insisted that Linux is already enough of a standard that the slow progress of LSB isn't an issue. But when Patricia pressed them to demonstrate that Linux distributions aren't fragmented, they retreated into vague analogies about Volkswagens and sports cars. The problem with these analogies is that they cannot explain why a company such as Oracle has to make separate deals with Red Hat and SuSE to get these individual distributions to support the features needed to make the database run well.

Most interesting is the fact that distributors said they all support a self-hosting standard, that is, a complete standard base distribution anyone can download and install, to which distributors then add value. But minutes later the Linux distributors qualified that support saying such a self-hosting standard will probably never materialize, and maybe it's not such a good idea anyway. It's obvious that (although they wouldn't admit it) a self-hosting standard is threatening to distributors because it almost eliminates the barrier to entry for new Linux distributors. Anyone with start-up cash can become a distributor of Linux.

Make no mistake, we will get a complete standard one way or another. At worst, some of the distributors will disappear or acquire one another until those few left standing split up the market along server, workstation, or other lines using products based on the same basic distribution. But I'd rather see an independent standards body such as LSB produce a complete self-hosting distribution. That's how more distributors could survive.

Nick is the founding editor of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com) and works for Caldera Systems. Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com.

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