Fear and loathing in Linuxland

Some IT directors are beginning to feel uneasyabout buying Linux owing to the version wars that are looming on the horizon
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The Independent Online

THERE'S TROUBLEbrewing in Linux land. After a very successful first part of the year,with large corporate customers embracing Linux for mission-criticalapplications, it looks as if the party may be over before it's evenstarted properly. Despite the promising improvements in the new 2.4version, its better support for systems that use multiple processors andsupport declared by giants such as Oracle and SGI, some IT directors arebeginning to feel uneasy about buying Linux owing to the version wars that arelooming on the horizon.

THERE'S TROUBLEbrewing in Linux land. After a very successful first part of the year,with large corporate customers embracing Linux for mission-criticalapplications, it looks as if the party may be over before it's evenstarted properly. Despite the promising improvements in the new 2.4version, its better support for systems that use multiple processors andsupport declared by giants such as Oracle and SGI, some IT directors arebeginning to feel uneasy about buying Linux owing to the version wars that arelooming on the horizon.

The recent Silicon Valley gathering of Linux gurusat the Linux World conference didn't do much to calm the fears of afragmenting market that have been circulating among large IT buyers. Manycompanies are keen to ditch Microsoft's NT and are likely to be tolerant ofsome ambiguity in the Linux roadmap, but, nevertheless, theperception of the risk involved in going Linux has jumped significantly over thepast few weeks.

Their wariness stems from the fact that big money isgetting interested in the Linux world. Up to now, hundreds of superbprogrammers have been contributing to its development in exchange for the senseof doing something useful and exercising their creative talents. However,the recent successful flotation of Red Hat (the company that distributesLinux and sells support and installation services) raised a lot ofeyebrows. Red Hat shares zoomed to the stratosphere on the first days oftrading, and created valuations of billions of dollars. The programmingcommunity does not appear to be too bothered, and (judging by the tone ofcomments at Linux World) is pretty much supportive of commercialisation ofthe code. However, other Linux companies, such as VA LinuxSystems, Caldera, SuSe and TurboLinux, are keen to get on with theirown flotations, hoping to repeat Red Hat's success, and are lookingfor new schemes that may create value for them but trouble for Linux.

Oneopportunity to stir trouble comes from the fact that Linus Torvalds, thefather of and roadmap owner for Linux, is focused on the kernel and tightlycontrols the version release, but is not interested in the userinterface, leaving the Linux community to take care of it. Until now,there have been different approaches to user interfaces, with Gnome,KDE, AfterStep and WindowMaker being the most popular. Gnome is supportedby Red Hat, while KDE and AfterStep are independent (so far). ButKDE has gained on Gnome by winning the Editor's Choice award on Linux World99 in the Desktop Environment category. The reviews were solidly supportiveof KDE, and from a user's point of view it feels as if Microsoft ActiveDesktop has come home at last - nice and stable, with great functionalityand consistency.

However, that was not enough for one of thepre-IPO contenders, VA Linux, which has been making noises about itsown attempt at providing a different user interface. VA's president wasnot forthcoming as to how his company was going to square the VA user interfacewith Gnome or KDA, saying that these were early days for Linuxinterfaces. Both KDE and Gnome are highly advanced developments, and itseems unlikely that VA lacks a clear perception on which direction it is likelyto take. Since VA Linux is also a Linux systems maker, it can enforce itsviews through the systems it makes, without asking anybody for permission todeviate from the leading two interface models. That is typically the firststep in preparing the ground for "owning" the interface and, withit, owning the customers.

Add to that the current wars among thenon-commercial Gnome and KDE in its own right, and the combination leadsto a lot of worried corporate IT buyers who don't really want to be caught inanother version war, even if it is the user interface and not the kernel thatmay start diverging. For them, the worry is the lost time in customertraining, support, the cost and hassle of changing to another userinterface if the one they have originally chosen is not going to win thewar.

Although the price for the Linux is low (since it is open sourcesoftware, companies don't have to pay for the software per se, as inthe case of Windows NT), the loss of face by the corporate IT buyer whomade the wrong choice, the frustration of the end user who is having to learnanother system and the time it takes to reinstall a new interface are not exactlycareer enhancers for the IT bosses.

One of the ways of making life moredifficult for companies with ambitious designs on "owning" Linux would befor Linus Torvalds to take charge of the whole lot including interfaces, notjust the kernel. However, he has made it clear on numerous occasions thatthis is unlikely to happen, leaving the door wide open for commercial Linuxcompanies which eventually may take the product from the community that hasdeveloped it. The Red Hat IPO and its subsequent $4.5bn valuation haschanged the open source culture for ever. Let's hope that it will notkill it altogether.

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