It seemed every major software vendor was at the recent LinuxWorld Expo announcing support for this open-source operating system. Well, everyone, that is, except Microsoft. And that's because Linux has become the only possible challenge to the Microsoft OS juggernaut. But the Linux community needs to ensure that this growing success doesn't beget the operating system's downfall.
Now, before the Linux fanatics start flaming me or subscribing my e-mail account to pornography sites, let me state my position. I am very glad that Linux has a growing role in corporate America as a quite viable OS for microcomputers. Yes, the BeOS and SCO exist, but they don't seem to hold the market potential that this community-built product possesses. I am concerned, however, that the growing market acceptance of Linux is forcing its leading commercial vendors to work hard to differentiate themselves from the others. It is also increasing the focus on the library and GUI challenges of Linux.
IBM only worsened this problem. No, not because the company commercially supported Linux. The problem results from IBM's choice to equally support all four commercial releases of Linux. I can appreciate IBM's desire to cover all of the Linux bases, but by selecting all four, it is forcing these various vendors to prove to the world that they have the best version of Linux.
This is similar to the tactic IBM used when it released three operating systems with its initial PC. Competition between these OS vendors eventually led to Microsoft and its DOS offering becoming the standard OS. But by forcing the various Linux vendors to show which is the winner, IBM undermines Linux's strength - and begins to force it down the path travelled by Unix.
Honestly, Unix is a great OS. In many ways, the marketplace hasn't given this environment its full due. But that's because there are too many versions of Unix that were brought out by various computer manufacturers that wanted to better their offering by adding "just a few tweaks" to Unix.
This resulting inconsistency forced vendors to support multiple Unix code bases and dramatically increase their testing efforts. Meanwhile, the single existence of Microsoft's OS - whether DOS or Windows NT - allowed application vendors to release one product that supported their platform. It is this unification that created the Microsoft "standard".
Linux had this standard - until recently. With growing visibility comes growing enhancements. Although the Linux community has been able to keep up with the integration of new enhancements in the past, they will become challenged to continue to do so in a timely fashion. And although vendors have been content to differentiate on installation, tech-support and ancillary features, they will be tempted to start tweaking with the kernel.
Vendors will do so to allow for better clustering or embedding, but eventually they will do so to show that they are faster than other competitors. It is this tweaking of the core that will result in different OS bases.
These challenges already exist. The public domain version of Linux is already different from the commercial version from Red Hat Software. But even more disturbing is the conflict that surrounds the support libraries. The Linux community is split over two major libraries, and there are even derivatives of each library. This is a huge challenge to application developers today who can certify for only specific commercial versions of Linux. The same situation exists for GUIs. Maybe IBM can reduce this chaos.
But if IBM is going to do so, it must do it soon. Linux vendors shouldn't try to compete on kernel tweaks. But they will. The Linux community should select one application library and one GUI as its standard and stand united. But it probably won't. In the end, it may be Linux's flexibility that may be its downfall.
Or, more appropriately, it may be the open-source community's fascination with features instead of standard application platforms.
Linux community members need to remember that if they are united in force, Linux can challenge Microsoft. If they are segmented, Microsoft will bowl them over like dominos. The choice is in the community's hands and the pressure is on.