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Open Standards Win

I'm 36 years old, and it seems that makes me an elder in the computer business these days. The employees at my own company, VA Research, are on the average at least five years younger than me. I first noticed the age difference when employees whose first computer was a 486 started showing up. They'd nod politely and smile with a humoring look as I described how to load a program from punched cards on a General Automation 1830 by entering the jump op-code for the card reader subroutine using toggle switches. I tend to tell people around the office I'm "in my late twenties" lest they think it's time to put me out to pasture.








Trenches/Standards Win
TONY KLASSEN

I’m 36 years old, and it seems that makes me an elder in the computer business
these days. The employees at my own company, VA Research, are on the average at least five years
younger than me. I first noticed the age difference when employees whose first computer was a 486
started showing up. They’d nod politely and smile with a humoring look as I described how to load a
program from punched cards on a General Automation 1830 by entering the jump op-code for the card
reader subroutine using toggle switches. I tend to tell people around the office I’m “in my late
twenties” lest they think it’s time to put me out to pasture.

Maybe no one cares that I once used punched cards, but having been around the computer industry
for 15 years, and having been in the Linux business for the past six years, I’m lucky enough to have
witnessed some dramatic changes in computer systems and the Linux market.

In the past six years Linux has been able to do something that the other UNIX vendors couldn’t
do in the previous 20: offer a common, stable, and inexpensive UNIX operating system across many
platforms.

For the first time ever a freely available operating system is displacing major commercial
products that have existed for years. The implications for the future of the computer industry are
staggering, not because of Linux per se, but because of how the success of Linux impacts the future
of the computer market.

That impact can be summed up in three words: “Open Standards Win”.

Over the history of computing, the more open solution has tended to win in the market. The
success of Linux is just another example of that.

Open Standards Win

In the 1960′s, computing was dominated by large system vendors who sold closed proprietary
products. Hardware and software were bundled together and controlled by a single vendor; the
customer had little freedom outside what the vendor provided.

As the market grew, customers began to demand more freedom. As a result, companies who
demonstrated more open standards in their products benefited. The workstation wars of the ’80s bear
this out. Upstart vendor Sun Microsystems sold UNIX-based systems that worked on an open operating
system (Berkeley UNIX) and a mostly standard hardware platform (M68000 VME bus computers).
Several workstation vendors appeared and died in that time frame — some with better technology than Sun.
For example, Apollo’s DomainOS is still regarded fondly as an integrated network environment that
was superior to Sun in many ways.

But while it may have been technically superior, DomainOS used proprietary networking protocols
and couldn’t inter operate well with networking standards. Sun was often regarded
as somewhat more “beta”, but it was based on known industry standards like UNIX, TCP/IP, and
Ethernet. Sun was more open than Apollo, and was able to position itself as the open
solution. As we all know Sun won, and the other workstation manufacturers like Apollo went away.
Open standards win.

Some people look at the success of a certain software vendor located in Redmond, WA as a
counter-example to the “open standards win” argument. However, Microsoft benefited tremendously from
the open standards of the IBM PC platform. Open hardware allowed clones, and the PC helped
establish the more open “unbundled”

model of selling the hardware distinct from the operating system. Once again, open standards
win.

As open source software developed by the Free Software Foundation’s GNU project became a serious
alternative, a variety of less open software vendors were driven out of business. For example, how
many vendors of commercial compilers exist for UNIX platforms today? Very few. GNU gcc has cornered
much of the compiler market, driving competitors like Lucid out of the business. How many commercial
web servers do you know? Again, not many. Apache now holds 54% of the web server market. Open
standards win.

Over the past 35 years the computer industry has always gravitated toward the more open
solution. Linux is just the next great example of that. As the industry continues to embrace open
standards, the standard to which companies are held becomes more strict. Sun, once considered an
open company, is now perceived as closed. At one time Sun’s Java license would have been considered
generous. Now anything less than the GPL is considered evil.

Why this trend? Because it benefits the consumer. Open source leads to better, less expensive
software. Open hardware creates commodity pricing around hardware. All too often in the past
companies would be left hanging when a vendor dropped support for something on which they depended.
With open source, that can’t happen. No one can ever take the code away from you. You can continue
to depend on it as long as you like.

The companies that should be scared about this trend are the large commercial vendors who
develop very closed proprietary products. Bill Gates should stay awake at night worrying about this
trend. It’s real, and it’s the inevitable push will that render Microsoft Windows obsolete. It’s
already happening. Linux is now regularly replacing Windows NT as a Windows (SMB) file server.

Web broadcasting company Wave-Top recently replaced all of their Windows NT file servers with
Linux, and found their performance went up and maintenance costs went down. Open standards win.

What this means for vendors is that they should be vying to be more open than their competitors.
Users of closed products should ask themselves why they use that product. Where do they fit in the
priority list of the vendor if they need a bug fix? What will happen to them if the vendor drops
support for the product? Customers will buy the more open solution. Over the long run it pays off
for them.

Open standards win.





Larry Augustin is President and Founder of VA Research, Inc., the first Linux systems vendor. He
can be reached at lma@varesearch.com.

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