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Eric S. Raymond -- The Re-Unification of Linux

Aug 21, 1999, 20:52 (60 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)

By Eric S. Raymond

In the wake of the wildly successful Red Hat IPO. stories mooting the possibility that Linux might `fragment' under corporate pressure seem to be proliferating. The memory of the great proprietary-Unix debacle of the 1980s and early 1990s is constantly invoked -- N different versions diverging as vendors sought to differentiate their products, but succeeded only in balkanizing their market and inviting the Windows invasion.

But amidst all this viewing-with-alarm (some of it genuine, much of it doubtless seeded by Microsoft) something ironically fascinating is happening. Unix is beginning to re-unify itself.

SGI's recent decision to drop IRIX and focus on Linux is one telling straw in the wind. Another is SCO's launch of a Linux professional-services group, clearly a trial balloon aimed at discovering whether SCO's branded-Unix business can be migrated to a Linux codebase. I visited a Hewlett-Packard R&D lab last week, and learned that many people there expect HP to deep-six its HP-UX product in favor of Linux in the fairly near future.

What's causing this phenomenon? Open source, of course. Whoever you are -- SGI, SCO, HP, or even Microsoft -- most of the smart people on the planet work somewhere else. The leverage you get from being able to use all those brains and eyeballs in addition to your own is colossal. It's a competitive advantage traditional operating-systems vendors are finding they can no longer ignore.

Playing along now and trying to defect later won't work either -- because running away from the community with your own little closed Linux fragment would just mean you didn't get to use those brains any more. You'd be swiftly out-evolved and out-competed by the vendors still able to tap the literally hundreds of thousands of open-source developers out there.

What we now have going is a virtuous circle -- as each of the old-line Unix outfits joins the Linux crowd, the gravity it exerts on the others grows stronger. The Monterey and Tru-64 development efforts, the last-gasp attempts to produce competitive closed Unixes, can't even muster convincing majorities of support inside the vendors backing them; both IBM and Compaq are investing heavily in Linux.

Linux fragmenting? No way. Instead, it's cheerfully absorbing its competition. And the fact that it is `absorbing' rather than `destroying' is key; vendors are belatedly figuring out that the value proposition in the OS business doesn't really depend on code secrecy at all, but instead hinges on smarts and service and features and responsiveness.

These are all things the worldwide community of open-source hackers are really good at supplying. Vendors become packaging and value-add operations that never have to re-invent the wheel again. Customers get better software. By joining the Linux community, everybody wins.

--
Eric S. Raymond

The saddest life is that of a political aspirant under democracy. His failure is ignominious and his success is disgraceful. -- H.L. Mencken