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Will commercialism help or hurt Linux?

April 8, 1999
Web posted at: 5:06 p.m. EDT (2106 GMT)

by Brett Mendel



Do you think commercial support is good for Linux?

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(IDG) -- With its enthusiastic throng of attendees, the ubiquitous signs and buttons proclaiming "Linus Torvalds for President," and a cameo meet-and-greet from the "candidate" himself (who won the mock election by a landslide), last month's LinuxWorld trade show in San Jose, Calif., could easily have been mistaken for a political rally.

But for the first time, a new presence imposed itself on what traditionally had been a grassroots campaign.

This presence was composed of the largest technology vendors in the industry, whose booths and backing signified major for-profit interest in the free, open-source operating system.

"I never thought I'd see the day where a four-color glossy presentation would be made about Linux," said show attendee Dan Benson, system administrator at the University of California at Davis. "The show has been very corporate and very commercial."

And now it seems there is no turning back. The raft of vendors jumping on the Linux bandwagon in recent months -- including Intel, Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Oracle, among others -- has many of the platform's backers enthusiastic about the market acceptance that such vendor support indicates.

At the same time, though, others worry that the cooperative community atmosphere for which the Linux operating system has been famous is being tainted by commercial interests.

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"I'm concerned that the spirit will be diluted," said Tom Stoddard, system administrator at BF Goodrich, in Grand Rapids, Mich. "The suits always tend to bend things to fit their interests, which are not always the same as administrators' interests."

Stoddard has been using Linux on servers for more than three years and currently manages systems that use the operating system to run e-mail, Domain Name System, and Internet proxy services.

"I am worried about the commercial interests a bit," Stoddard said. "Up until now, no one has had their hooks into it."

For example, distributions may be configured in ways that require tools or support from specific vendors rather than a choice of vendors or the ad hoc support available via the Internet, Stoddard said.

Others have expressed concern that larger independent software vendors may port their software to a specific distribution and create a de facto standard among the handful of distributions.

"We don't want to be forced to standardize on one distribution," said the University of California at Davis' Benson.

Still others fear that Linux is even at risk technologically, despite the diligence in protecting the operating system kernel for which its creator -- Torvalds -- and his development team have been renowned throughout the user community.

"The more it gets commercialized, the more people are in it for the money," said Tony Pinto, MIS manager at Minolta, in Mississauga, Ontario.

"Right now only one person controls the kernel, but if it becomes more proprietary with third-party applications, the situation changes," Pinto said.

For the time being, the barbarians have remained at the gate, and observers think they will stay there -- at least for the immediate future.

The tight grip that Torvalds maintains on new kernel releases has so far prevented a Unix-like splintering of Linux, while the recently formed Linux Standard Base has been working to remedy subtle differences among the distributions in nonkernel activity.

Still, third-party interests are clamoring to get a piece of the action.

"Everybody brings their own enlightened self-interest to the party," said analyst Dan Kusnetzky, program director of operating environments and serverware at International Data Corp. (IDC), in Sarasota, Fla.

"The way to make money is to get in there and steer an otherwise unsteerable process," Kusnetzky said.

Some Linux administrators have gladly welcomed this scenario as validation.

The big technology players have not only legitimized years of collaborative development, but are also giving Linux a much-needed credibility and financial boost in the marketplace.

"More vendors means more support, financing, products, and therefore options when choosing Linux as a server or desktop platform," said Mikey Wilsker, system administrator at the Interpacket Group, in Santa Monica, Calif.

Ironically, it is exactly this outside influence that may be necessary to garner the acceptance of Linux on a broader, more mainstream scale.

Torvalds himself has applauded the groundswell of recent support that has propelled the Linux movement from obscurity to media darling.

"Some people have been seen as freeloaders, selling Linux CDs and hardware and making money that way," Torvalds said in his keynote address at LinuxWorld. "But they're doing Linux a big favor by making it easier to install and approachable to normal people. It makes it a more viable OS."

Viability may also come simply from vendor support itself. As most IT managers will confirm, it is no easy task to sell their superiors on a product that was developed by an unknown graduate student, evolved from a loose affiliation of software programmers, and is distributed for free via the Internet.

"In the corporate world, anything that is free is not acceptable. But if you pay, it has a value and backing from a company," Minolta's Pinto said.

Whether the yin and yang of cooperative spirit and commercial influence surrounding Linux today can work together rather than at odds remains to be seen.

The "tag-along" business model of open-source applications, whereby the initial product is free and additional products and services are sold for profit on top of it, has proven successful for other software, such as the Apache Web server and the SendMail messaging application, according to IDC's Kusnetzky.

However, Linux has one key difference that may make historical comparisons irrelevant.

"What's new is that someone built a whole operating system, not tools or subsystems," Kusnetzky said.

And with no line of succession to take over from the small group of people who closely guard and unify kernel development, significant uncertainties may persist.

"If Torvalds leaves, no one knows what will happen next," Kusnetzky said.

Brett Mendel is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco.

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