Focus: Standards

by Marjorie Richardson

Standards—a fairly innocuous word that seems to create a storm of controversy whenever it is spoken. Everyone agrees it is a good thing, but no one agrees on what standards should encompass or how they should be enforced. Whether for auto parts or operating systems, standardization can be a big plus for the consumer.

The Linux operating system, unlike other software products, has multiple sources—each distribution represents a different implementation. The differences are generally in the installation software and methods (RPM vs. DEB packages, for example); however, nothing is currently in place to prevent a company from adding a feature to the operating system and still call it Linux. Other companies are free to adopt the feature, but this is not required.

This month, we look at the Linux standardization efforts. Two things are very clear in the standards debate:

  • Distributions want to remain unique in order to maintain marketplace advantage.

  • Users and manufacturers of applications software (ISVs) want applications that will run on whichever distribution they own, i.e., they want applications to run on all distributions.

These two things are not mutually exclusive. After all, users do not want one distribution to become the Linux “Microsoft” (it might be one other than their favorite), so users too are all for uniqueness in distributions. And no distribution wants to be the odd man out—the distribution on which a major application doesn't work; so, the distributions also are for compatibility. Developers more than anyone want standards that will enable them to write programs that will work across all distributions without hassle. Thus, it appears as if all sides have a common ground on which to meet.

Setting and following standards is the only way to ever ensure cross-distribution compatibility for applications. However, standards that are defined in a rigid and finely detailed manner will be ignored by developers as unrealistic and difficult to follow. Finding that optimum position between standards that are too lax and those that are too rigid is the laudable goal of the Linux Standards Base Project. Dan Quinlan, the project leader, tells us about the plans of the LSB in his article in this issue.

To find out where all the distributions stand on this issue, Norman Jacobowitz talked to representatives of each by e-mail and at the LinuxWorld Expo. Some were more forthcoming than others; see who said what in Norman's article this month.

Want to express your opinions? Join the discussion groups on Linux Journal Interactive,

—Marjorie Richardson, Editor in Chief

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