UnitedLinux

by Doc Searls

Today, June 5, 2002, Red Hat, Oracle and Dell are announcing "their collective commitments to Linux for the enterprise" (sounds almost Communist, doesn't it?) in a big launch event at Oracle's place in Silicon Valley. Invitations sent to the press said new products from all three companies would feature "Unbreakable Linux."

Perhaps not coincidentally, four Linux distributors--Caldera, Conectiva, SuSE and Turbolinux--got a bit of a jump on those festivities by announcing UnitedLinux on May 30th. Whether or not the two announcements were coincidental, it's hard not to presume Newtonian market mechanics: for every competitive action by a dominant company, there is an equal and opposite reaction by its remaining competitors.

UnitedLinux calls itself "a standards-based Linux operating system targeted at the business user" that is "developed, marketed and sold by an experienced partnership of Linux companies." It will be based on the Linux Standard Base (LSB), LiN18ux and the "best practices" of the four partners. UnitedLinux will own the brand and the intellectual property of the partnership, employ its own staff and have its own board of directors. It will feature extensive localization in multiple languages and offer services for education, customer support, training, certification and consulting. The four partners are looking to save development and certification costs, and each offers faster times to their various markets.

Right now they are testing an alpha version and plan to have the first finished versions ready in Q4 of this year. They also expect UnitedLinux 2.0 to be ready in Q3-Q4 2003. It will run on Intel's 32- and 64-bit architectures, plus IBM's zSeries, iSeries and pSeries of midrange and mainframe computers.

Each partner will continue to sell its own brands of Linux, "powered by UnitedLinux". The foursome isn't exclusive about membership; other partner candidates are invited to participate.

The four expect to compete through their own custom implementations, bundled applications, OEM deals, support systems, pricing and channel relationships. In other words, each distributor turns into a sales and marketing organization. The UnitedLinux web site carries supportive remarks by AMD, Borland, Computer Associates , Hewlett-Packard, SAP, the Free Standards Group and others.

The source code will be made freely available under the GPL. UnitedLinux will not be distributing binaries, however, and this doesn't sit well with some people. Last night on The Linux Show, Russell Pavlicek, Open Source Columnist for Infoworld and author of Embracing Insanity : Open Source Software Development, says the withholding of binaries "seems to carry the assumption that the community leeches off their development". He fears that, "if (UnitedLinux) were to become the dominant force, they would take on themselves the mantle that the community is a necessary evil", because so far, "there is nothing that indicates any sense at all that the community is in any way involved." (He elaborates in Where UnitedLinux got it Wrong at NewsForge.)

Criticism has risen over statements by Caldera that it may offer "per-seat" licensing of its own UnitedLinux distribution to customers, which would be a novel move for a Linux vendor. In Caldera's case it may also speak to demand, since many customers Caldera inherited from SCO are accustomed to licensing on a per-seat basis. Regardless of the reasons, Richard Stallman still believes per-seat licensing is at variance with the GPL. He wrote this to Linux and Main:

"'Licensing per seat' perverts the GNU+Linux system into something that respects your freedom as much as Windows.... They cannot restrict the GPL-covered programs in the system that way because that would violate the GNU GPL, but the system also contains non-copylefted programs which are points of vulnerability. Free software developers, please don't let them license YOUR program per seat. Use the GNU GPL!"

Red Hat's muted response came in the form of a written statement that says, "Too many distributions hamper the migration of applications to Linux, so if this effort by Caldera and others consolidates distributions, it is a good development." The statement adds, "Time will tell if the [UnitedLinux] group's distribution will achieve the same level of support" (offered by Red Hat ).

We'll give the last word to Jon "maddog" Hall, President and Executive Director of Linux International:

As one of the instigators of the Linux Standard Base, I would like to see one version of Linux that the ISVs and hardware vendors can test against. Yet I also believe that competition is what makes products strong and having only one version of the base system means that competition is stifled.

There was going to be a reduction in the number of Linux distributions, and the way that it occurred could either be disastrous for the Linux community or have it managed....

As I have understood UnitedLinux, it will create a binary standard distribution and boot path. All of the distributions will share in this, with each distribution adding its layered functionality on top of that to create its specific distro. This will not only make for a strong "second" distribution, but will allow the Linux industry to cut costs in distribution development.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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