With the recent downturn in the economy and the drop in Linux companies' share prices, an uninformed observer might believe that the sun is setting on Linux. They would be wrong. Unfortunately, the expectations that had previously been set for Linux are analogous to parents expecting that their teenager successfully complete college before graduating from high school. Few, if any, possess the maturity to make that jump.
With the recent downturn in the economy and the drop in Linux companies’ share prices, an uninformed observer might believe that the sun is setting on Linux. They would be wrong. Unfortunately, the expectations that had previously been set for Linux are analogous to parents expecting that their teenager successfully complete college before graduating from high school. Few, if any, possess the maturity to make that jump.
The failures teenagers encounter as they strive to cross the chasm between adolescence and adulthood do not diminish their potential in our eyes. In fact, we applaud and encourage them to continue to try again, because we know that those who are the brightest and most capable will have more failures before they reach their potential.
As a father of seven children (three of whom are teenagers) and a founder of Caldera, I know whereof I speak. The Linux industry is as complex and difficult to understand as a teenager. The challenges facing Linux have nothing to do with its potential and everything to do with its maturity. With that in mind, I’d like to make five suggestions for the Linux industry:
- Learn to honestly evaluate successes and failures
- Uphold standards
- Develop and/or embrace mature business channels outside of retail
- Seek compatible companions that will help Linux mature faster
Evaluate Successes and Failures
The Linux industry and the Open Source development model have had tremendous successes that have changed the information technology landscape for good. The Open Source software development model facilitates collaboration and innovation in an unparalleled manner. Linux, as a technology, has matured much faster in its development than any other technology or operating system. However, Open Source is not without its problems — even as a development model.
An Open Source model does not provide a complete road map of where the technology is going. The outcome and timing of Open Source development is much less predictable. Open Source is akin to the ideal sandbox for a developer — lots of technology to play with and no one giving assignments or deadlines. This is great for development but not great for business.
Open Source has made a significant contribution to the way software is and will be developed. It has proven to be a method of development worthy of further review and refinement. We can mature the model by developing road maps and improving timelines.
While the Open Source development model shows great potential, the business model needs some additional work. If we want to support the development model of “free” software, we must come to realize that someone has to make money. If the Linux providers cannot become profitable, the only companies who will continue to invest in Linux will be those with a differing agenda. Their income will be derived from sources other than Linux itself, and their primary allegiance will be to those other sources of revenue.
Linux providers must be free to experiment with business models that allow them to earn a profit. The Linux market must mature into a real industry or it will be relegated to acting as a catalyst for existing industries like hardware or software. The community must come to terms with the fact that the Linux providers need to make money in order to stay healthy. Without healthy Linux providers, we run the risk of returning to the bad old days of fragmented Unix, and we potentially allow the underlying hardware architecture to drive the platform and differentiation.
So, what is needed for Linux to mature as an alternative business platform? Well, continuing with our maturing teenager example — young adults eventually come to realize that laws or standards are for their benefit, not to simply create hindrances or restrictions. In much the same manner, Linux needs to have a standard reference platform and distribution that all developers can write to.
The industry has talked about adopting a Linux Standard Base (LSB), but the early success of Linux has created obstacles to its adoption. Every Linux provider felt that they had an opportunity to become the dominant platform, and the tight development cycles that are required to remain competitive in the retail space, combined with the average developer’s insatiable desire to have the latest and greatest technology, fueled a self-feeding retail frenzy.
Develop and Embrace Mature Business Channels
This leads to the next point. Just as a teenager must branch out beyond his parents in order to integrate the knowledge and experience of others, Linux must branch out from its retail roots and develop mature business channels. Mature business channels like Value Added Resellers (VARs), Consultants, and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are critical to the business customer. These specialists provide total solutions for their clients. No one buys an operating system — they buy a solution to their business needs.
Because we live in a global economy, these channels and the companies that support them must be global. Having regional Linux companies is a major headache for business customers as well as for major application and hardware vendors. While many large application and hardware providers support multiple regional Linux providers, most smaller businesses cannot.
Consequently, a Linux provider must be able to offer a global infrastructure for support, marketing, and sales. To build a global infrastructure requires tremendous resources, time, and capital. With money tight, the current market is forcing the maturation and consolidation of suppliers.
Just as a teenager must seek specialized training, Linux providers must begin to focus and specialize. Rather than view each other as competition, we can partner in key areas that would be beneficial to the industry at large. Since there is little or no money in a base distribution of Linux, we should all provide an LSB-compliant distribution. Specialization can then come from the markets we choose to support or the product areas above the operating system in which we develop intellectual property.
Seek Compatible Companions
Finally, when we are young, we feel that we do not need anyone’s help to achieve our goals. We have no fear. When we get a little older and wiser, we realize that partnering with others can provide tremendous growth, comfort, and enjoyment. There are those in the Linux community who believe that they can do it all themselves. However, they are unrealistic.
With all of the investment capital that has been poured into it, and with all of the media interest surrounding it, there is tremendous pressure on Linux (as a technology and a business model) to mature much faster than may be realistic.
At Caldera, we believe that unifying SCO Unix with Linux is a way of achieving that maturity in an accelerated time frame. SCO Unix as a technology has test suites, application programming interfaces, tools, and infrastructure that would be very compatible with, and complementary to, Linux. This unified system will enable application developers and business customers to more fully embrace and deploy Linux into the mainstream business back office. There is clearly a trend in the industry of traditional Unix providers integrating Linux with their current offerings. The Linux industry should embrace these groups.
There are things in the Unix industry that need to change, and there are things in the Linux industry that need to change. However, their marriage could result in the most reliable, scalable, open, and useful technology platform the industry has ever known.
My greatest joy as a father has come from watching my teenagers, in both their failures and triumphs, take on the additional challenges of adulthood. For those who conclude from my analogy that they should wait to embrace Linux until it matures, I issue this challenge. If you wait, you may be left behind. Linux has grown and matured faster than any other operating system platform in history. Many of the issues that I raise in this piece are being addressed even as I write these words.
Like youth itself, Linux is fresh. The development model is new and intriguing. The business model is not yet fully formed, but this provides opportunity. Linux is a “disruptive” technology; it has and will continue to change the information technology world. More importantly, like the Internet itself, Linux will change the way we do business, the way we develop and deploy technology, and the way we package and deliver applications and business solutions.
Get to know this teenager called Linux and you will be richer and wiser, financially and personally. Get to know Linux and see the potential for change in our industry. Linux is the smart alternative, the dawn of a new day.
Ransom Love is CEO of Caldera Linux Systems, a publicly-held Linux distribution and services company.