October 20, 2007

Where does Linux go from here?

Author: Joe Barr

Linux is now mainstream -- so mainstream, in fact, that two of the top three Linux distributions are commercially successful operations, and the third aims to be. Every day, more and more old-school IT firms shake off their initial doubts, get in line behind their customers, and try Linux and other free software projects. In the face of such success, will Linux remain true to its free software ideals and to the community which created it? Or will it morph into a corporate byproduct, driven by the bottom line, and complacent with all forms of predatory intellectual property (IP), including software patents and closed, proprietary standards which are standard fare in the IT industry.

Red Hat is the most successful commercial distribution of Linux. It has refined the model of selling services, not software, to the nth degree. Michael Tiemann, the man who first viewed the GPL as a business plan rather than a license, brought that model with him when Red Hat bought the firm he founded, Cygnus, which was the first successful open source company. Red Hat has been successful without selling out its beliefs in open source and free software. It puts its money where its mouth is on issues such as software patents, open standards, and the OLPC project.

In terms of revenue, Novell is Red Hat's largest competitor, and while it now owns the SUSE name and distribution, it's more of an old-school proprietary software firm than a Linux company. Novell's deal with Microsoft has chafed many in the free software community, who view the deal as a sell-out. In its defense, such contracts have long been common in the software industry. All of Novell's PR problems around the deal reflect the difference in how business is done in corporate boardrooms versus how business is done in the bazaar, where profits are welcome but sharing is the sustaining ethic rather than the secrecy of closed source and the chains of IP. But the deal has also given Novell new blood, new cash, and a certain cachet in those boardrooms where legalistic bombasticism is an accepted fact of life.

Ubuntu, however, looms on the horizon. Its popularity in the Linux community is booming among those who choose Linux for their computing platform rather than use it because it's required by their job. That popularity -- Mark Shuttlesworth estimated this week that there are six million Ubuntu users today -- comes partly because it is free-as-in-beer as well as free-as-in-speech, but more importantly because it delivers what users want on their desktops. Ubuntu excels in multimedia capabilities and wireless compatibility by offering "non-free" device drivers for use with the click of a button. While Red Hat and Novell focus on pleasing pointy-haired bosses, Ubuntu focuses on personal desktops. The Ubuntu approach is proving an important barometer for just how much "non-free" software is acceptable to the community in a Linux distribution.

The other Linux distributions, whether community or commercially driven, pale in significance to the top three. Yes, Debian is important and unique, Mandriva is still kicking, and Linspire lives on. So do hundreds of other distributions. But none of them belongs at the same table as the big three, based on popularity of their desktops. While some would argue that distros like Xandros and Linspire are key for corporate acceptance of Linux on the desktop, they pale in significance when their revenues or usage is compared to Ubuntu, Novell, or Red Hat.

Old-school IT

Linux is surrounded by proprietary IT firms. Some of them view Linux as a profit maker, others as a threat to their profits. Both sides represent a challenge for Linux in holding to its ideals of freedom and openess.

The first large IT firm to really grok Linux was IBM. It has a long and mutually beneficial association with Linux, Apache, and other FOSS projects. The company has learned the language and the mores of the FOSS world, and has made significant code contributions as part of those projects along the way.

One of the reasons that IBM began to embrace Linux -- which it described as a "disruptive technology" -- was because it wanted to shake things up at Microsoft. Linux gave Big Blue a chance to regain some clout in the world of operating systems, something it lost after it abandoned OS/2.

One of the positive results of this alliance of the IBM boardroom and the Linux bazaar has been new life for and new profits from IBM's mainframes. Yes, IBM has driven some kernel changes for their own benefit. That is just as it is supposed to be with Linux development. If you want the software to do something differently than it currently does, you code it and you submit it to the maintainers. Over time, many of your changes end up in the kernel. IBM has accomplished its goals without trying to destroy the fabric of the community or stage a junta to replace Linux creator Linus Torvalds.

Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and AMD are other proprietary IT firms that arrived at the party early. Google's incredible financial success owes a great deal to its choice of Linux as the platform for its servers. Even Dell, once loyal only to Intel and Microsoft, is dabbling again with Linux, and apparently going to expand its Linux offerings. Oracle, believe it or not, plans to create a distribution of its own.

By contrast we have SCO and Microsoft. SCO thought it could get rich through litigation, and if it destroyed Linux along the way, well, sorry, but that's the nature of corporate warfare and collateral damages. But even with financial backing from Microsoft, it appears the only thing SCO has destroyed is itself.

Microsoft is drawn to Linux like a moth to a flame. It doesn't want to get too close, but it just can't stay away, not with so much money in play. All of Microsoft's attention to Linux, however, has been negative, attempting to stifle its continued growth. Microsoft has not come to praise Linux, but to bury it -- to to try to bury it, anyway, with advertising campaigns, by funding for SCO's litigation efforts, and by calling it communism or a cancer. It's the money that drives Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to utter such complete drivel that the entire Microsoft public relations machine is thrown into chaos trying to do damage control.

The most powerful influences on Linux in the group? IBM, no doubt, is on top. Google is probably second, not only by illustrating the power of Linux, but by generating enormous profits thanks to the cost savings which come as a result of using it. Microsoft, now lurking in the shadows while it plans its next assault, is third in influence, even though all of its efforts have negative rather than positive.

The next step

Red Hat and Novell should both continue to thrive, with each appealing to a slightly different customer base: Novell will benefit from its deal with Microsoft among firms who fear a legal assault from Microsoft, while Red Hat will win with firms that choose vendors based on technological merits and those seeking freedom from monopolistic vendors. The irony is that both offer a better solution at a lower cost than Microsoft.

Ubuntu is going to have to get serious about its commercial operation one of these days. Even someone as rich as founder Mark Shuttlesworth cannot continue to fund its development forever without a revenue stream -- perhaps through deals with OEMs such as Dell, perhaps by following the Red Hat lead and selling subscriptions for support to casual and corporate users. However that plays out, it can't help but impact the Red Hat and Novell side of the equation If Ubuntu succeeds commercially, it will be as a major player, eating a large slice of the available market pie. If Ubuntu fails commercially, its will create a vacuum that Red Hat and Novell might fill.

Microsoft might become an even larger influence on Linux than it is today. What if, for example, Microsoft decided to plop a new GUI atop the Linux kernel and enter the fray with its own version of Linux? The company has never been shy about copying success demonstrated elsewhere, and Apple has done very well doing exactly that with BSD.

Such a move could solve a couple of problems for Microsoft. It has never really been very good at developing operating systems, and a move like that could not only free it from that chore, but provide a new basis for maintaining monopoly control over Microsoft Office: the GUI itself. Imagine the corporate appeal of a robust and secure Linux distribution coupled with 100% Microsoft Office and back office compatibility.

It's a given that Microsoft will continue to use the same tactics it has used all along -- disinformation, saber-rattling, and duplicitous advertising -- despite the fact that those tactics are not working, as witness the failed SCO attack. My bet is that Microsoft will opt to get into the Linux business while the company still matters, and that it will be no more trustworthy once it does than it is today.

Linux and free software are here to stay. No single commercial firm will ever control the Linux ecosystem like Microsoft has the rest of the software industry. Though both may prosper, the bazaar will outlive the boardrooms, and Linux popularity will continue to grow on servers, desktops, appliances, and embedded devices.

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