Can Linux break Intel's hold on the market?
(IDG) -- Last week, Compaq/Digital Equipment Corp. officially abandoned hope that it could displace Intel x86 chips with Alpha chips by providing a faster, better Windows NT on the Alpha platform. Compaq will continue to support Windows NT up to version 4.0 with service pack 6, but will not support Windows NT beyond that. Compaq will continue to develop and support Tru64 Unix and OpenVMS on the Alpha platform, and will provide Linux-based Alpha machines.
Some of today's pundits are sure to conclude from this Compaq announcement that the Alpha chip is dead. Let me be the first to challenge that conclusion. I predict that Linux on Alpha may never cause the Alpha to displace Intel x86 chips as it probably should, but Linux on Alpha will flourish nevertheless.
The reason my prognosis is likely to differ from the popular view is because of the differing nature of Windows NT and Linux customers. The Windows NT customer base is made of purchasers with a herd mentality. The Linux customer base is made of decision makers who are willing to take risks in order to get the fastest, most cost-effective, and most reliable solution.
In the long run, it's true that Linux can only dominate if it benefits from the herd mentality that has propelled Windows NT. But if this is a race, it's more likely that Linux will gain the reputation for being the safe choice on any platform than it is that NT will gain the reputation for being the fastest, most reliable, and most cost-effective solution -- even on Intel alone.
To err is human, to purchase NT bovine
Back in 1996, I came to the conclusion that Windows NT on Alpha was doomed. (See my December 2, 1996 InfoWorld column, link below.)
My determination was based primarily on the characteristics of the herd mentality. Most of the people who choose to standardize on Windows NT are the same kind of people who chose to standardize on IBM PC hardware in the infancy of the PC market. These are the folks who manage by magazine, mindshare, and the expected longevity of the companies they deal with. The rest -- reliability, speed, and even cost -- is secondary to the decision-making process.
(No doubt I've offended a portion of my readership with this analysis, but that isn't at all my intent. There are many cases in which the herd mentality leads to the best purchasing decision. For example, it would be foolish to switch to a protocol other than TCP/IP: no matter how good the alternative, you couldn't use it to talk to the rest of the people on the Internet.)
If you shot up a handful of IT managers with truth serum and asked them why they standardized on Windows NT, I'd bet my bottom dollar that most of them would give you answers like "It has the most software" (the independent software vendor herd mentality); "Windows NT is the future" (the trade publication herd mentality); "That's what our people know" (the corporate hiring herd mentality); or "Everyone else is moving to NT" (the purchaser's personal herd mentality). Rarely, if ever, would you get the answer, "Because it's the fastest, most reliable, and most cost-effective solution money can buy."
That's why Digital Equipment Corp. bet its Alpha business on Windows NT. People were destined to be driven to it by the herd mentality. Ironically, however, it was exactly this herd mentality that made it impossible for NT on Alpha to ride the NT wave to widespread success.
Anyone who purchased NT because it was the psychologically safe choice wasn't going to risk a business on anything other than Intel -- the psychologically safe choice for hardware. It goes against the herd mentality to invest in Alpha. And that goes for everyone involved -- from individual IT managers to ISVs who develop software for Windows NT.
It's a hardware problem
One might extrapolate from the above argument the conclusion that Linux on Alpha will never succeed either. After all, one of the reasons Linux is enjoying so much success is because many visible companies -- IBM, Oracle, Informix, Syabase, and SGI, to name a few -- are declaring support for Linux.
In other words, Linux is growing so quickly because it's gaining the kind of credibility that appeals to the herd mentality. Consequently, the herds of publications, customers, ISVs, and hardware vendors will support Linux, creating the same cycle that has advanced the popularity of Windows NT. If the growth of Linux parallels that of Windows NT, Linux on Alpha will eventually die.
Why Linux on Alpha won't die
But there are several reasons I believe this won't be the fate of the Alpha chip or, for that matter, any other non-Intel platform on which Linux runs. Here are two of them:
First, the Linux customer base will spread through the herd, but unlike the Windows NT customer base, it didn't originate with the herd. The first Linux customers were attracted by the quality and the price of Linux. But this attraction didn't stop with these customers. Many Windows NT customers are now switching to Linux because of its quality and price.
So, even if Linux eventually becomes the safe no-brainer choice on Intel, it will have gotten to that point with the established reputation for being reliable on non-Intel platforms as well as on Intel platforms. Therefore, I predict that anyone with even a brain cell's worth of adventure will be less intimidated by the thought of Linux on Alpha than they would have been by NT on Alpha.
Second, and perhaps most important of all, Compaq and other hardware vendors using alternative CPU chips will be more inclined to promote Linux than they were Windows. The reason for this should be self-evident. Hardware vendors want to sell hardware. They don't care about operating systems unless those operating systems will somehow guarantee they'll sell more hardware.
That's why most non-Intel hardware vendors originally chose Unix for their default operating system. Digital Equipment Corp. created Digital Unix, SGI created IRIX, Sun created SunOS/Solaris, Hewlett-Packard created HP-UX, and IBM created AIX. Most of these vendors chose Unix because it began as a free operating system with open source. Even after AT&T started charging for the source, it was still cheaper and easier to port Unix to a unique hardware platform than it would have been to develop a brand new OS from scratch.
Some vendors who didn't support Intel-based systems eventually added Intel due to popular demand. Likewise, they added support for Windows NT on Intel or non-Intel platforms because they assumed NT would sweep the world. NT would therefore enable them to sell more hardware. In the case of non-Intel platforms, that didn't turn out to be the case. So one by one, the non-Intel versions of NT disappeared. Windows NT on Intel stands alone, and the hope of selling more non-Intel hardware based on the success of NT has collapsed.
By comparison, Linux is practically risk-free for vendors of Intel or non-Intel hardware. If they simply want to leverage Linux on Intel, they have a chance against the giants because the Linux market is just emerging. There are few vendors with which to compete for attention in the Linux market. And the vendors that are the best established are new names like VA Linux and Penguin Computing, not old ones like IBM, Dell, and Gateway.
As for non-Intel hardware, vendors can enjoy the benefit they once had with the original Unix. Linux is free. Linux source is free. Better still, most of the effort required to support Linux on alternative platforms has already been done. As icing on the cake, hardware companies don't have to pay a third party for each Linux-based machine they sell. It's therefore less risky and far more cost-effective for Compaq to back Linux on Alpha than it is to back Windows on Alpha.
The bottom line
In conclusion, while I must concede that Intel will probably dominate the landscape for the time being, non-Intel platforms have a better chance with Linux than they ever did with Windows NT. If alternative processors like the Alpha have a bright future, I predict that future will be primarily on Linux. If so, Linux could do something for these alternative platforms that NT never could -- expand the herd mentality to accept non-Intel platforms.
Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld and columnist for InfoWorld.
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