January 22, 2007

FSG and OSDL to merge; form Linux Foundation

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Free Standards Group (FSG) and Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), two of the major non-profit corporations dedicated to promoting open source software, are merging to form a new organization called The Linux Foundation. The new organization will be led by Jim Zemlin, the former FSG executive director, and for now will continue the work of both predecessors. The merger will be legally complete in early February, but work on the practical details will begin immediately.

The Free Standards Group is best known for the Linux Standards Base (LSB), the set of technical specifications intended to prevent fragmentation of the GNU/Linux operating system. More recently, FSG has become more active in encouraging community collaboration with a series of summit meetings and ongoing work groups, including ones for printing and the development of an API to serve as an interface between native package systems and third-party installers.

Open Source Development Labs encourages similar community collaboration on both the enterprise and desktop level. In addition, OSDL has promoted common legal support for members with its Linux Legal Defense Fund and Patents Commons Project. It is best known for sponsoring Linus Torvalds and other kernel developers.

Founding members of the Linux Foundation include virtually all major corporations involved in open source development, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Novell, Oracle, and Red Hat.

The activities and membership of the FSG and OSDL overlapped to a considerable degree. In fact, Zemlin characterizes the two organizations as "complementary" in function, and suggests that the merger will reduce the duplication of efforts. "A lot of our members were pretty much the same companies and individuals," he says, and "If you look at the activities that both organizations have been doing, they really come down to services that you need to compete."

Another reason for the merger, according to Zemlin, is that "a lot of the work that the two organizations have been doing in the last few years is winding down. Open source evangelism in general -- I would characterize that work as a slam-dunk. Everyone gets that Linux is a mainstream enterprise operating system. So, really, when you look at these two organizations, one of the things you really want to consider is: What's the next phase?"

According to Zemlin, that next phase is characterized by a mixed environment -- a "duopoly" as he calls it -- in which computing is dominated by competition between GNU/Linux and Windows.

Zemlin believes that, in order to compete in this environment, open source software needs to meet Microsoft on its own terms while retaining its unique characteristics. "Think of some of the things that we should tip our hats to Microsoft on," he says. "They promote their products well, they protect their platform well, and they have a certified Windows standard that everyone gets. We need to do the same kind of things -- not the same way as Microsoft, but collectively, in order to compete collectively."

In order to protect, promote, and standardize GNU/Linux, Zemlin sees The Linux Foundation as providing "a neutral spokesperson on behalf of our members so that the platform can be represented without any one company hawking its goods."

Zemlin would also like the foundation to have a similar role in the community, but acknowledges both the difficulty and possibly the lack of need for an independent spokesperson. "They are incredibly good at speaking for themselves."

The foundation will employ about 45 full-time contractors. It will continue to use the OSDL headquarters in Portland, Ore., with pockets of employees in San Francisco and Indiana, and a development center in Moscow.

Zemlin has no immediate plans for laying off redundant employees, or for discontinuing existing projects started by the FSG or OSDL, or existing connections with related groups such as the Software Freedom Law Center. He also expects that existing projects will "stick with the current timetables, because those are pretty much in line with the Linux distribution revision cycles." He hopes that any issues not already addressed by the FSG will be identified within the next few weeks.

George Weiss, an analyst with the Gartner Group, responded cautiously to the announcement. "There are more questions than answers yet," Weiss says. "The organization could have a lot of leverage and market influence. That's what I would be looking for. And that would take leadership, executive skills, and marketing."

However, Weiss remains neutral about whether the new organization will be able to show those characteristics. "I have a great deal of trust in Jim Zemlin, and he's done a better job at handling the LSB than his predecessors, even though that's a very complicated endeavor." But Weiss is more skeptical about the OSDL's past effectiveness.

"What I'm looking for is more transparency, more reaching out to the open source community," he says. If this is an open source community, let it be as open as possible."

Weiss suggests that The Linux Foundation could have a limited time to prove its effectiveness. Ideally, he says, "Within a few months, we should see very concrete types of objectives or missions in terms of what the organization chart is going to look like and what the priorities are. And when will they have goals in terms of what they are achieving? If you don't hear from them for another 12-15 months, and they disappear into the woodwork, you can write them off."

Zemlin appears to be aware that his new organization will need to prove itself. "If you think about Linux," he says, "it's innovative -- it's got better architecture and better security -- but at the same time a lot of innovation is not just about tech. It's about the licensing model and the distribution model. This organization will also be innovating in areas that you don't normally think about: standard setting, how to do a common legal defense, how to provide common promotion -- those are all things that are interesting and innovative that will help the platform compete in this new stage of growth. I think that's a pretty exciting thing, and it's something that I'm personally proud to be a part of."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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