Linux for Suits: Scoring 100

Before the dot-com era, there was no such thing as a “Linux company”. Afterward it was hard to find a major company in computing that didn't run Linux or sell goods that ran on it.

The biggest word in today's Wall Street Journal is LINUX. Actually, LINUX is tied with UNIX, WINDOWS, CHECKBOOKS, ROCKS and DB2. All are in the headline of a full-page ad by IBM on page B3—the first page that accepts advertising—in the Marketplace section of the newspaper.

This afternoon (I'm writing this in late May) Hewlett-Packard is announcing a deal with Reuters to move that company's Market Data Systems to HP ProLiant servers running Linux. The deal spans three to five years and could exceed $200 million.

HP says it won that piece of business over IBM and Sun, both of which also are growing Linux providers. IBM has all but embarrassed itself with its public declarations of love for Linux, getting busted last year for scrawling Linux graffiti on public property. Sun, meanwhile, has been struggling to find a way to be pro-Linux without hurting its high-end Solaris business.

So it would understate the matter to say Linux is a hit with big systems OEMs, and the trend hardly stops there. A year ago Linux was big in only one obvious category: web servers. Now it's spreading out. HP says its latest sale “demonstrates the growing presence of Linux in the financial services market”, a market that used to be synonymous with highly proprietary software and hardware. HP pointedly adds, “This also places HP in a strategic position as the financial services market moves from Sun Solaris to Linux.”

Proprietary UNIX systems aren't the only ones threatened. Yes, Windows is still a monopoly, but for how long? Several years ago that would have been a ridiculous question, but now it's not. Microsoft seems to have declared war on Linux and open-source software—a strategy that is backfiring terribly. Today's papers bring news that Microsoft reportedly has been trying to convince the US Department of Defense that open-source software poses both a threat to security and to the company's intellectual property. Meanwhile the DOD had a report prepared by MITRE Corp. that identified 249 uses of open-source systems and tools, including the Defense Intelligence Agency's web portal and network security software for the US Army and Air Force. MITRE itself maintains a library of open-source products, including mobile mesh networks and CVW (Collaborative Virtual Workspace). MITRE even maintains some of its open-source software on SourceForge.

Even where Linux isn't the operating system of choice, it has opened the door for other free and open forms of UNIX, such as BSD, which was adopted into Darwin, the open-source foundation of Apple's OS X. These events have increased vastly the population of the world's Linux-friendly PCs and servers. At a recent conference, I asked Steve Jobs if it was true that the company's new rackmounted X servers were expected to augment, rather than replace, existing UNIX systems. He said “yes”. After I asked him what other kinds of UNIX crops prevail in potential customers' server farms, he started his list with Linux.

His answer is not surprising. Here's a rundown of Google results for a variety of operating systems and related topics:

  • Linux: 47,100,000

  • Windows: 43,800,000

  • UNIX: 12,200,000

  • Open Source: 2,740,000

  • Free Software: 1,760,000

This is a far cry from 1993, when Phil Hughes included me in an e-mail list that explored opportunities for a free-software magazine. After batting ideas around for a while, Phil suddenly announced that his little company, SSC, was going to start a magazine for Linux, the brainchild of a 21-year-old guy from Finland.

I thought Phil was nuts. But Phil is very instinctive about stuff other people don't see. A few years later, during a visit to my house, Phil showed me KDE running office applications that looked remarkably like what one saw on Windows. Yet everything he showed me was free and open. It blew my mind so much that I took him up on his offer to join the masthead. This was in early 1999, when the venture capital was still flowing like Niagara and Linux had an effect on investors that was something like Viagra. By the end of that year, three of the biggest IPOs in the history of American business were for companies strongly identified with Linux: Red Hat, Cobalt and Andover/VA Linux. VA's IPO in December flew to over $300 per share on day one before settling at over $200. For a few months there was no shortage of Linux billionaires.

I recently purged my pile of business cards and took a picture before tossing the stack into recycling. They told an interesting story.

  • Some companies were out of business. That was the case with Linux Laptops, Rebel.com, Loki, Eazel and OpenSales, which changed its name to Xelerate (was it one l or two?) before going away.

  • Other companies, like Kerbango and Cobalt, were bought up by larger companies—in these cases 3Com and Sun. 3Com killed off Kerbango and its cool little radio, while Sun has reportedly done pretty well using Cobalt to hold up the low end of the company's server business. The Cobalt Qube remains a benchmark Linux server appliance.

  • Others are shifting their focus away from Linux .VA Linux, which was once so identified with the L word that they paid seven figures for the Linux.com domain name, paid over $1 billion in stock for Andover and traded on Wall Street as LNUX, has changed their name to VA Software.

  • Corel, after trying to create a kind of consumer/productivity software business around Linux, jettisoned Linux along with a lot of other ballast in an effort to stay afloat.

  • Linuxcare is still alive, although without its founders, who are off making news with Sputnik, a new company in the mobile wireless network market.

  • Other companies, like Boxx (not Boxx Technologies, currently operating in Austin, Texas), which made (or at least prototyped) a fancy Linux/Windows hybrid laptop, simply vanished.

  • Two related market experiments (which I was very enthused about), CoSource and SourcExchange, quietly folded.

  • There are success stories too. Linux-based TiVo is synonymous with the small but closely watched digital video recorder business. Borland, no longer burdened by the forgettable name Inprise (which was on several of my tossed business cards), is reportedly doing very well with Kylix, its cross-platform Linux development environment.

  • SuSE shrank its operations in the US but remains the leading Linux distribution in Europe and is strong worldwide as well. Caldera is holding on pretty well. So is Turbolinux.

The big winner is a company with no cards in my pile, Red Hat, which still proudly flies the penguin flag and remains by far the leading Linux distribution. (We modestly point out that the name of the editor atop our first issue's masthead was none other than Red Hat founder Bob Young. Coincidence?)

It's easy to put down all the dot-com enthusiasm and to damn Linux with the failure of the whole dot-com, um, “model”. The phenomenon had its upside as well. It helped make Linux a household word and funded a variety of projects that thrive today. One example is SourceForge, which hosts over 40,000 projects and 430,000 registered users.

Here at Linux Journal, we've been through the hard times along with the rest of the surviving Linux companies. What's kept us going is the steady march of Linux toward what Linus Torvalds half-jokingly called world domination.

After 100 issues, Linux Journal has become the leading Linux how-to magazine for countless technologists—software and hardware companies, government organizations, medical and scientific institutions and third-world economies that need maximum productivity with minimal cost. We're in great shape, and so is the world Linux now dominates: operating systems.

Linux has finally done what UNIX devotees have wanted for decades: it has driven the OS to ubiquity. Today the only UNIX systems with any future are free, open and ready for improvement by anybody who wants to jump in and help. That's one heck of a success story.

Doc Searls (doc@ssc.com) is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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