June 1, 2002

Commentary: Where UnitedLinux got it wrong

Author: JT Smith

- By Russell C. Pavlicek -

On Thursday, Linux companies Caldera, SuSE, Conectiva and
Turbolinux came together to announce a new effort called UnitedLinux.
The four distributions will create a single Linux
distribution focused on the business server market. Participating
companies will be free to bundle their own software with the distribution
to add value to the generic distribution. Furthermore, other Linux
companies are free to join the effort.
As a basic business concept, UnitedLinux makes sound business sense. A
single business-centric distribution makes life simple for ISVs and
OEMs. Once software is ported and tested on UnitedLinux, an ISV can
rest assured that the software will run on all participating
distributions. Likewise, OEMs need only certify that their hardware works
with UnitedLinux, rather than multiple different distributions.

Sounds good. Almost.

There is at least one serious problem. It can be fixed very
quickly, if the member companies decide to do so. If they refuse,
however, they may find themselves in a very uncomfortable place.

The problem has to do with critical vendor relations. The UnitedLinux
companies are making it difficult for their software providers to produce
the very software that will make up UnitedLinux. How so?

UnitedLinux will not provide free binaries. Oh, the source code will be
available, in accordance with the GPL and other Open Source licenses, but
the UnitedLinux companies so far have said they won't provide binaries.

Why? Well, according to Ransom Love, CEO of Caldera Systems: "The binaries will not be made freely available, for a variety of reasons, because again we are focusing more to the business customer. One is the support issue, another is the certification and
quality of that certification on a global basis."

On the surface, this seems to make business sense. Many Linux
companies have dealt with people purchasing inexpensive CDs
containing the binaries of their Linux distributions. The buyers sometime
think that this is an official product that should entitle them to
support services. Likewise, any problem with the cheap CD can
damage the reputation of the Linux distribution, even though the problem
may have nothing to do with the distribution itself.

Red Hat reportedly has had problems in this area. In a publicized dispute with Cheapbytes.com, Red Hat apparently demanded that Cheapbytes not to sell the ISO images of Red Hat Linux as "Red Hat Linux." As a result, you
can now buy "Pink Tie Linux" from Cheapbytes, which consists of the Red
Hat ISO images from Red Hat's Web site.

But, while these problems may be real, the solution proposed by
UnitedLinux will only exchange one set of problems for another. If you
assume that the people downloading the software binaries from the FTP site
are merely customers, then the solution makes sense. However, that is not
the case.

No, many of the people downloading software from FTP sites are developers.
They are the software providers -- the true software vendors, if you will
-- who make the code which is UnitedLinux. By cutting off your
development people, you are launching into dangerous territory.
Alienating the Open Source community is a dumb move for most companies to
make. But alienating them, and then expecting them to cooperate with your
desire to sell their software, is profoundly foolish.

No corporation in its right mind will go out of its way to tick off its
vendors. Why then would the UnitedLinux group go out of its way to tick
off the community that makes most of its product?

I'm willing to believe that they don't want to. I'm hoping they just
picked a poor solution to their problem.

There is a much better solution to their problem. Go ahead and
make the binaries available. But give the result a new name, let's say
"Hacker's Linux."

How will this help? Well, first, it will give developers a
downloadable Linux distribution that is structured just like UnitedLinux.
This will allow developers to write applications that will follow the
structures and conventions of UnitedLinux.

But this will also solve the original problems. By naming the binaries
"Hacker's Linux," it clearly distinguishes the result from
UnitedLinux. The newbie Linux user might contact Red Hat if the words
"Red Hat" appear on the $3 CD. But the same uninformed user would have
no clue that he should contact UnitedLinux for support regarding
Hacker's Linux. Likewise, there would be no soiling of the reputation
of UnitedLinux, because there is no mistaking Hacker's Linux for

But it also solves an additional unspoken problem. If UnitedLinux
provides binaries for free, there is always the likelihood that some
corporation will simply download and use the software. The UnitedLinux
companies would clearly rather that the corporation pay for UnitedLinux
kits and support services. Naming the FTP version "Hacker's Linux"
will stop that.

Why? Because corporations want to feel secure. They want the brand name.
They want support. What happens if the boss hears the name "Hacker's
Linux?" You can expect to hear an immediate dissertation on the order of
"We don't want software for hackers -- we want software that gives us
support and quality! Get that UnitedLinux product in here!" The name
"Hacker's Linux" will make the downloadable software totally unpalatable
to the corporate world. And, because the corporate world is the only
targeted customer base for UnitedLinux, this will virtually eliminate any
loss of revenue otherwise expected from providing ISO images.

So my suggestion to the UnitedLinux folks is this: Don't alienate the
community. Give the community free access to the software they wrote.
Just do it in a way that meets the needs of your business. Will it take a
little more effort? Yes. But it would take you many times more
effort if the Open Source community stops cooperating with you.

There's no need to shut out the community. Just implement a better

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