NewsForge looks back on the key stories of 2004


Author: Chris Preimesberger, Jem Matzan, Joe Barr, and Jay Lyman

It’s time to look back on the events that shaped the free and open source software world in 2004. And why not — you expect this kind of story on December 31, right? Well, alrighty then.
Here, in rough chronological order, are our Top Nine.

1. Novell completes SUSE buy, releases new SUSE version (January)

Novell’sacquisition of SUSE Linux, announced in 2003 and completed in 2004, has to be considered for the title of “story of the year” for Linux. The story is important for its symbolism as much as for the way it changes the Linux landscape. Novell is an old-school, proprietary, battle-hardened veteran of the land of “Survival in a Windows World.”

In the proverbial blink-of-an-eye Novell has become a Linux company. Linux gets business infrastructure in Novell’s channel, support, and retailing expertise. Novell gets a new lease on life by joining the only team on the planet winning against the war against Microsoft: the Linux team.

Yes, there will certainly be a few missteps along the way to peaceful coexistence. We’re talking matter and anti-matter here, corporate bottom-line-ism versus the GPL. It’s risky and it’s daring, but it just might pay off for everyone.

In order for the deal to work, Novell has to grok two things about Linux. First, the fact that there won’t ever be huge margins to be made as a Linux distribution. Not for the software itself, anyway. Second, if their Linux business is conducted as business as usual in America, cutting quality, costs, and service to improve the bottom line, they won’t have done anything except killed a good Linux distribution. If Novell can get its head around that, it’ll be fine.

Novell won praise for an old company embracing the new way to make software,
but there were also some questions
and criticism
, particularly when open source guru Chris Stone left the
company in November.

The company also faced a renewed
from rival Microsoft, which began luring Novell’s NetWare
users with software and support. However, Novell insisted a Redmond rivalry
was nothing new and indicated the bulk of its NetWare users would be among
those moving to Linux.

2. Sun makes peace with Microsoft (April), open sources Solaris (November)

Sun Microsystems repeatedly announced in 2004 that it would make the next version of Solaris — Solaris 10 — open source. As usual, there was a lot of posturing and various statements over the weeks and months, ending with a lengthy discussion on the OSI’s license-discuss mailing list. As of this writing, Sun is still seeking OSI approval of their Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL), which is based on the Mozilla Public License and is widely believed to be earmarked for Open Solaris. Solaris 10 is due to officially ship (minus AMD64 support and the vaunted ZFS file system) Q1 2005, although the first release is unlikely to be governed by the CDDL. At the close of 2004, Sun has yet to officially announce the exact licensing terms for Open Solaris, but has assured the open source community that it will be governed by an OSI-approved license.

There was some speculation that Sun would not be able to open the Solaris source code because of agreements with such third-party vendors as the SCO Group and Kodak, both of which at one point had proprietary code in the Solaris operating environment. Sun CEO Scott McNealy told NewsForge at the November Solaris 10 product launch that his company had gone to great expense to eliminate or buy out all of the proprietary bits in the Solaris codebase in an effort to remove such obstacles.

Despite its promise to open the world’s most widely used trademarked Unix operating system, Sun spent 2004 escalating its attacks on perceived competitor Red Hat Linux, which McNealy says has captured the Linux market.

In by far the strangest press conference of the year, McNealy and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer shook hands on an uneasy truce that stopped most of the litigation between the two IT superpowers and made allowances for some actual interaction between some of their products. We’re still trying to figure this one out.

3. New Linux development model introduced (May)

One significant change to Linux kernel development occurred this year when
Linus Torvalds and OSDL announced a new
intended to deliver and show more accountability. Torvalds
indicated that the “documented chain of trust,” praised by security experts,
came along with kernel hacker input and was also intended to integrate with
existing release criteria for Linux distributors.

4. Linux supercomputer domination (June)

It was also a year in which we realized that Linux was the dominant
operating system among supercomputers, where lower-cost, easier-to-implement
Linux clusters were the supercomputing vehicle of choice. In only a few
years, Linux had risen from practically zero representation on the list to,
last June, representing more
than half
of the systems ranked. In the most recent list, Linux was
the main operating system behind four
of the world’s top five supercomputers
, including IBM’s BlueGene/L at
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the NASA/Ames Columbia system —
the top two. The supercomputing strength of Linux may be even more apparent
in the next year as list co-editor Erich Strohmaier told NewsForge that
operating system will soon be included in compiled information.

5. Dell releases first name-brand commercial Linux desktop (July)

We broke this story last summer. Dell denied it at first, then took a long time to admit it, because it didn’t set well with its 800-pound gorilla partner, Microsoft. But finally the truth came out: Any person could buy a Dell desktop with pre-installed Linux through its Italian channel partner, Questar. The particular model is a Dell Optiplex 170L mini-tower system running the Linspire 4.5 distribution and bundled with three years of Dell’s Gold tech support plus one free year of Linspire’s CNR software catalog.

You can’t order it through Dell’s regular U.S. Web site or through any of Dell’s U.S. retail channels. But you can still order it. It may take a little longer to get it delivered, and you may have a few extra fees to pay, but you can get one. Dell is handling distribution to anywhere in the world from its plant in Ireland, Linspire spokeswoman Ellie Sanchez told our sister site,

6. OpenBSD, NetBSD finally get SMP support

Long after the Linux kernel and even trailing behind FreeBSD-5, OpenBSD and NetBSD both added “big lock” symmetrical multiprocessing support for the i386 and AMD64 architectures in the last released versions of 2004.

7. SCO Group and continuing IP litigation (all year)

SCO Group, the purported owner of the Unix operating system, first made headlines in March 2003, when it filed a $1 billion patent-infringement lawsuit against IBM for allegedly using Unix System V code in its home-grown AIX operating system. Later, it upped the dollar total to $5 billion. Since then, the two companies have gone back and forth with a number of legal shots and retorts; the case is scheduled to come to trial in spring 2005. SCO Group, to date, has proven nothing in its allegations. Meanwhile, the lawyers have been raking it in big time; SCO’s lawyer, David Boies, alone has already been paid $13 million in the last year and will get $9 million more by the end of 2005. Not a bad wage.

Since then, SCO Group has also filed various lawsuits — ostensibly to protect its IP — against DaimlerChrysler, Novell, and AutoZone. It has another lawsuit in play against Red Hat. In October 2003, the company received a $50 million cash injection from two institutional investors, the Royal Bank of Canada and BayStar Capital Ltd. of Novato, Calif.

Then, in March 2004, the story broke open when a SCO Group consultant, Mike Anderer, wrote a letter to SCO vice president Chris Sontag, outlining the details of how he hooked up some big-pocket individuals at Microsoft with BayStar in order to help the $50 million public investment in private equity (PIPE) deal take place. The letter, leaked to Eric Raymond, was called the Halloween X document, and it proved that Microsoft — at least indirectly — was involved in helping keep SCO Group afloat to do the dirty work of IP litigation. Later, we broke the first interview with Anderer about the deal..

This story seems to have no end — as long as there is a SCO Group, there apparently will be IP litigation. Oh, wait — SCO Group is in the Unix products and services business. We almost forgot.

8. Firefox kicks a big dent into IE (November)

Mozilla Foundation’s open source browser, Firefox, zoomed to huge download numbers this year. According to one study, for the one-month period from November 5 to December 3, Firefox’s usage share grew from 3.03 percent to 4.06 percent. This compares to a gain of 13 percent during the previous month, from October 8 to November 5. “Firefox’s gains are clearly accelerating,” Rand Schulman, chief marketing officer for WebSideStory, said. “Firefox’s stated goal of gaining 10 percent of the market over the next year no longer seems unattainable.”

9. OSDN becomes OSTG (July)

OK, it’s not really one of the most significant news events of the year, but it was a big deal to us. Our parent organization, the Open Source Development Network, rebranded itself (and wow, did that ever hurt!) as the Open Source Technology Group. In the process, it relaunched several sites and introduced new services (such as the IT Manager’s Journal Product Guide). Editorial-driven changes to the network included a new IT-focused section,, on the popular news and community site Slashdot. OSTG also updated, IT Managers Journal, and yours truly, NewsForge, to include more in-depth, business-oriented articles and news coverage, improved site navigation, and a beefed-up editorial roster.

10. ______________ It seems odd to have a Top Nine list. What significant story have we left out? Let us know in your comments.

Have a Happy New Year, all!