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Why Linux isn't just another Unix

by Bob Young, Columnist


(IDG) -- Some observers claim the world is adopting Linux with such enthusiasm due to the performance, features, and low cost of Linux-based OSs. In fact, this is not the case. As we have all learned (to our disappointment) the best technology seldom wins, even in the most technical of markets.

Building a better mousetrap does not assure you of success.

Linux isn't going to be successful because it can be installed on a machine with less memory than alternative OSs, or because it costs less than other OSs, or because it's more reliable. These are just features: they may make Linux a better mousetrap than NT or OS/2, but they don't guarantee its success.

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To argue conversely, that the variety of Linux distributions available will ensure Linux's failure, is also a mistake. The wide number of Linux distributions is just another, albeit problematic, feature.

The forces that will ultimately drive the success or failure of the Linux OS will be the "big picture" forces -- all those factors MBAs like to lump together under the term market positioning.

A senior executive at Lotus asked me recently "Why does the world need another OS?" It's a valid point. Does the world really need another OS? Probably not.

If it's to succeed, Linux must prove to be more than just another OS.

Asking whether Linux's features are enough to make it even more popular is begging the real question. We should instead ask if Linux represents a new model for the development and deployment of OSs.

This is the question. And the answer is: Linux, and the whole open source movement, represents a revolution in software development that will profoundly improve the computing systems we build, now and in the future.

The great Unix flaw

The best way of illustrating the profound difference in the Linux approach to building an OS is to examine the balkanization of Unix. Many of those who witnessed the divergence of commercial Unix into 30 different, largely incompatible versions are convinced that this too will be the ultimate outcome of the Linux effort.

But the very forces that drive the various Unixes apart are working to unify the various Linuxes.

The main difference between Unix and Linux is not the kernel, the Apache server, or any other set of features. The primary difference between the two is that Unix is just another proprietary binary-only OS.

The problem with a proprietary binary-only OS that is available from several suppliers is that these suppliers have short-term marketing pressures to keep whatever innovations they make to the OS to themselves, for the exclusive benefit of their customers.

Over time, these proprietary innovations to each version of the Unix OS cause the various Unixes to differ substantially from each other. This occurs because Unix vendors don't have access to the source code of competitive innovations and the license Unix vendors use prohibits the use of such innovations -- even if everyone involved in Unix wants to use the same innovation.

The Linux solution

In Linux, the pressures are the reverse. If one Linux supplier adopts an innovation that becomes popular in the market, the other Linux vendors will immediately adopt that innovation. This is because they have access to the source code of that innovation and it comes under a license that allows them to use it.

An example of how this works is the very example Linux skeptics have been using to predict the downfall of the OS, namely last year's debate between the older libc C libraries and the new glibc libraries.

In November 1997, Red Hat adopted the newer glibc libraries for a whole bunch of strong technical reasons. There were popular versions of Linux that stuck with the older libc libraries. The debate raged for all of six months. Today all the popular Linux distributions have either switched or have announced plans to switch to the newer, more stable, more secure, and higher performance glibc libraries.

It's your choice, stupid

Whenever a revolutionary new practice comes along, there are always skeptics who predict its inevitable downfall by pointing out all the obstacles the new model must overcome before it can be called a success. There are also the ideologues, who insist that only the purest implementation of the new model can possibly succeed. And then there are the rest of us, who just keep plugging away, testing, innovating, and using the new technology model for those applications where the new model works better than the old one.

Of course, the computer industry has witnessed such revolutionary shifts in the past. Take the example of IBM publishing its PC specs in 1981. Why did the world adopt the PC computing model with such enthusiasm?

It wasn't because the IBM PC was a better mousetrap. The original 8086-based PCs shipped with 64 kilobytes -- yes, kilobytes -- of main memory. They had an upper memory limit of 640 KB, since no one could imagine a single user would need more than 640 KB on an individual machine. A tape cassette recorder was available for data back up.

What drove the PC revolution was that it provided its users with control over their computing platform. They could buy their first PC from IBM, their second from Compaq, and their third from HP. They could buy memory or hard drives from one of a hundred suppliers, they could get an almost infinite range of peripheral equipment for almost any purpose or application.

This new model introduced all kinds of inconsistencies, incompatibilities, and confusion between technologies, products, and suppliers. But, as the world now knows, consumers love choice. They will put up with a huge amount of confusion and inconsistency in order to have access to choice.

The Linux OS gives consumers choice over the OS level of the technology that comes with their computing system. Does it require a whole new level of responsibility and expertise on the part of the user? Yup.

Having experienced the choice and freedom of the new model, would that user prefer to go back to the old model of being forced to trust a proprietary binary-only OS supplier? Nope.

Folks smarter than your faithful correspondent are undoubtedly going to point out more serious problems with the Linux technology than I've attempted to address here. But remember, consumers love choice. And in the interest of that, the huge Internet-based open source software development marketplace is going to figure out ways to solve those problems.

Bob Young is the CEO of Linux distribution vendor Red Hat Software Inc.

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