Unrest in Linux Land

BOSTON (05/15/2000) - We're in the midst of the first true test of the open-source movement. Linux, open source's poster child, is under fire. Here's just a sampling of Linux's current woes. Last year, if you ran a Linux startup, venture capitalists or Wall Street investors were throwing money at you as if you were a cast member in television's Friends. Now, it's as if they want to cancel your program.

Investors and paying customers are shunning Linux businesses like Nielsen viewers avoid PBS. Bellwether Linux stocks such as Red Hat Inc. and Caldera Systems Inc. are trading near their 52-week lows. International Data Corp. has estimated that despite Linux's strong 25 percent share of the server market, the operating system generates somewhere south of US$35 million in revenue out of a market that tops $5.7 billion. The one bright spot in the Linux market went dim when, earlier this month, Linuxcare Inc. pulled its IPO and announced layoffs.

More turmoil bubbled to the surface last week, when the Linux Internationalization Initiative and the Linux Standard Base combined to form the Free Standards Group (FSG) in hopes of staving off increasing worries that the open-source operating system is becoming too fragmented. But in the face of criticism, the FSG pledged to be "sensitive to the idea that Linux development should not be stifled," suggesting that a single Linux release will remain as elusive as a unified Unix.

The bad news goes beyond money and politics. Linux devotees also learned this month that the 2.4 kernel would be pushed from summer to fall, evoking memories of endless Windows delays. This is especially troublesome, because the operating system isn't a prime-time competitor in areas such as clustering and SMP. And its user-interface shortcomings mean the desktop market for Linux is about as close to zero as counting allows.

But all this trouble in Linux Land hasn't put its IT supporters on edge. With the source code at their fingertips, IT managers know there is little at risk for them, and so they will continue to deploy the system. Their ongoing support for Linux is vital for the open-source movement to get through this market test, which, I think, it will pass with flying colors.

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