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For Linux Lovers, Safety Comes in Groups

If Microsoft is the big cat prowling the Serengeti of software with its Windows operating system, companies that promote Linux are playing the part of elk, banding together in protective herds.

In a 30-day span, four groups backed by a number of companies pledging their allegiance to open source software launched with an emphasis on propagating Linux in a world where Windows reigns.

Their common goal?

Unifying what has long been a highly fragmented collection of movements to make Linux more palatable to commercial businesses that want to run alternative platforms to run computer networks.

In October, the Free Standards Group and the Linux Standard Base (LSB) workgroup formed the LSB Desktop Project to improve Linux operations on the desktop.

Around the same time, the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), a global group dedicated to promoting Linux development, formed the Mobile Linux Initiative (MLI), which is geared to speeding the adoption of Linux on smartphones and handheld computers.

Led by PalmSource, MLI members are working on solving the technical challenges inherent in tailoring Linux for little gadgets, as well as promoting application development for those devices.

As a companion group to MLI, PalmSource and friends later launched the Linux Phone Standards (Lips) Forum.

Lips members have pledged to write open application programming interfaces and create new services to spread the use of Linux in smartphones, handheld computers and other mobile devices as an alternative to the mobile operating systems from market leaders Symbian and Microsoft.

John Ostrem, lead scientist for PalmSource and representative of OSDL's MLI and Lips, said there needs to be an alternative to Microsoft and Symbian in the phone markets.

"Most operators and handset makers don't like to deal with Microsoft and Symbian because they don't want to pay license fees to competitors," Ostrem explained in an interview. "The great white hope out there is Linux. One big advantage is that it can be highly customizable.

"The problem however, and the reason why you're seeing all of these groups come up, is that there has been a great deal of fragmentation in the Linux market," he added.

Ostrem said different companies who develop for Linux often use a variety of Linux distributions and build different graphical user interfaces and middleware, creating an interoperability issue that defeats the unification purpose of Linux.

Groups like MLI and Lips are created to streamlining competing companies' efforts. After all, the whole point of MLI and Lips is to build a platform that rivals Windows and Symbian in quality, he said.

Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst George Weiss applauded the recent surge in Linux special-interest groups.

"Sprouting process is a healthy sign," Weiss said via e-mail. "We need a healthy mix of the proprietary, single ownership concept of IP with that of the collaborative model that solicits and integrates the contributions of a community who can derive other sustainable business models."

The proliferation in Linux groups is also a testament to the dominance of the Windows OS.

The platform's ubiquity on computing devices such as desktops, laptops, handheld computers and smartphones is another reason groups coalesce around specific computing areas using Linux.

Companies such as IBM, Novell, Red Hat and PalmSource believe the market wants an alternative.

"The thing that is unique about Linux is that it's flexible enough to be applied in lots of different situations and lots of different scenarios," said Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady.

"If we look at some of the recent announcements around mobile Linux, they have very different needs than the Linux community at large," O'Grady continued. "So I think there is a need for special interest groups that focus on particular aspects of the Linux ecosystem."

Weiss said the Linux fixation is similar: Many companies have not been satisfied with relying on Microsoft for all their needs, leaving room for new opportunities such as open source software.

"The dynamics of the Linux community seem to suggest that many market needs may arrive even faster from a collaborative effort than awaiting one vendor's solutions and that Microsoft's development priorities may not necessarily coincide with all types of users' and industry segments' needs," Weiss said.

He said Linux tends to spawn interest in satisfying market needs rapidly, and while we may often find a glut of projects, the natural selection process will weed out most.

Microsoft and Windows aren't the only adversaries Linux faces. Linux, by its open nature, lends itself to be a potential victim of software patents.

Every software maker's worst nightmare is bringing a product to market only to have some other entity come out of the woodwork and claim they patented the idea 20 years ago and demand royalties from the product's sales.

That's why IBM, Novell and others forged the Open Invention Network to acquire patents and offer them royalty-free to push open source operating systems further into the mainstream.

While some analysts openly wondered how OIN would make money offering patents royalty free, O'Grady thinks the move is more about protection against patent-associated risks than it is about turning a quick buck.

"I think OIN is absolutely necessary," O'Grady said. "This is not a profit-centered type of business but rather about managing risk and liability.

"There are folks running around looking to exploit how broken the patent system is," he added. "Patents are horribly misapplied in the software world. Patents don't require working implementations -- just an idea. So if someone patents some absurdly broad idea and someone else figures out how to implement it down the line, the patent holder [can seek compensation]."

But Weiss said he's not so sure forming a company is the best way to ensure security for the Linux community, noting that the Patent Commons created by OSDL offers similar protection. He suggested OSDL and OIN might want to work together.

Such a move would shave off one of the Linux groups that have popped up in recent weeks, perhaps making OSDL stronger.

Scott Handy, vice president of Linux and Open Source at IBM, couldn't explain the recent surge in groups, but he welcomed them as a natural evolution of the Linux ecosystem.

"We're very proud of the fact that Linux, by its very design point, can't fragment," Handy said. "There's multiple people who distribute it but we see that as a huge benefit in the market. This is the power of collaborative innovation and collaborative communities."

"The communities' interests get satisfied instead of any particular vendor's. Multiple companies will start working on derivative works and they'll say 'it is devalued if it's independent so why don't we come together.'"

One thing's for sure. If Microsoft is the king cat on the plain with Windows, IBM wouldn't mind being the lion of Linux as a server and software giant. In IDC's third-quarter server report, Linux servers continued to sell strong, with year-over-year revenue growth of 34.3 percent and unit shipments up 20.5 percent.