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.

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