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Editor's Note: SCO Will Be Victim of Linux's Success

Jan 16, 2004, 23:30 (28 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

In some school somewhere in any given country, two students are lining up for a fight. Heated words are exchanged, faces are flushed with anger. Epithets regarding ancestry, sexual alignment, or gender are most likely hurled at each other just before clenched fists amateurishly start flailing away.

Universally, in these schools, a certain phenomenon will occur. A crowd of fellow students will gather around the combatants, trying to catch a glimpse of the impending battle. Those who are more belligerent will shout comments to the fighters, trying to egg on the fight more quickly.

More and more students will rush over as the crowd grows, until the inevitable arrival of a faculty member, who recognizes the heated sounds of a fight crowd and plunges in to grab the fighters and haul their sorry butts off to the office. The crowd, of course, scatters like leaves in the wind at the first sign of authority.

Though such fights can happen at any time in any social situation, the ones at school, among the young whose emotions are running rampant, are a common experience for many of us, regardless of where we live. For some of us, it is an embarassing, all-too-familiar memory.

There is a group mentality common in many, if not all, cultures that draws people to conflicts, especially the small-scale ones. No one in their right mind would wander into a war zone to see what was what, but there is some sort of odd pull that compels people to watch fights that are not likely to directly harm them.

I am no sociologist, so maybe one can explain this phenomenon to me. My amateur's guess is that it has something to do with our early tribal need to find out which tribal leader held the most power in the pecking order.

There is another group mentality that many capitalists would be very familiar with, though the best example of it I have ever personally seen was in a communist nation. It is the economic rule that describes what happens when a certain item is in high demand when its supply is too low to meet such needs. People will, even if they don't need the item, seek such an item out because they know others want the item, too. This is what is known as speculative demand.

In the US, good (if rather goofy) examples of this were the Cabbage Patch Doll craze of 1986, or the Tickle Me Elmo hysteria exactly 10 years later. I never saw these first hand, but I saw something similar in the old USSR in 1987.

There, food and goods shortages led to long lines of Soviet citizens outside of stores on a daily basis. As I passed through the GUM department store in Moscow one day, I saw a line quickly start to form outside one of the kiosks. I could not read or speak Russian, but from the window display this was clearly a shoe kiosk. Another member of my group asked our guide what was being sold that attracted such a fast-forming line and she informed us that a new shipment of women's shoes had just come in.

This new shipment illicted such a strong response because either people were going to be able to wear the shoes or they would be able to sell or trade them for something they could use later on. It was a stark reality for an American to see, which is why when I see full-scale speculative demand here at home, I tend to be very cyncial and slightly sickened.

There are, of course, various degrees of demand. When it's full-tilt crazy speculative demand, it's invariably bad. Who places high value on Cabbage Patch Dolls any more, other than children and the assorted collectors on eBay? It's a temporary rush of excitement and hysteria, and not something that lasts.

But when tempered with a healthy caution and realism, demand, even it's a bit speculative, can be a long-term good thing. Linux's demand is doing quite well right now and I think it is partly because of the result of the two phenomenons of conflict-draw and speculative demand that has risen Linux's popularity in the near term.

The conflict I am talking about is, of course, SCO's recent ventures into attacking the GPL and trying to hijack the Linux kernel any way they can. For it is the kernel they are going after now, not the operating system as a whole. If this were not the case, they would be suing distribution companies, not developers or (if they ever actually do it) users.

But in all of their actions that have stirred and infuriated those in the Linux community, what have they really accomplished? Based on the recent results reported by Red Hat, HP, IBM, and even Sun for the last quarter of 2003, not a single damned thing to harm Linux.

In fact, I could very easily make the argument that the Linux community owes Darl McBride a huge thank-you note for all of the help his company has given to Linux over the last year. That is, I would if I didn't realize that this popularity might actually be working in SCO's favor.

If SCO had behaved normally, they would have sued IBM, issued a few preliminary press statements explaining why, then quietly faded into the background for the next few years while the case was decided in court. A few trial updates would have surfaced in the final days of the case, then the decision would be reported and all parties would deal with the verdict.

But SCO is not behaving normally for a litigant in a $3 billion trial. They are loud. They are boastful. They are giving all signs that they are very likely bluffing. And, because they are being this way, they are attracting attention.

The technical media, the mainstream media, and now Wall Street analysts are shining the spotlight on Linux-the-operating-system. And, inevitably, people are starting to look at this conflict and the item-in-demand within the center of conflict, and starting to wonder if this Linux is something they might want to try?

After all, they think, if a small company is willing to sue big IBM for $3 billion just to prove they own a piece of Linux, then maybe this Linux thing is something we should look into. It's not like we have any love for Microsoft.

Novell's purchase of SUSE and Ximian raised the temperature on this demand, too. If a veneraable favorite like Novell is banking on Linux, IT managers are thinking, it could be something I need too.

The SCO fight attracts the attention. The prize holds the attention and stirs up the demand, making Linux more and more desireable.

Clearly, this conflict is not the sole reason for Linux's recent growth in sales and deployments. The aforementioned Novell acquisitions, IBM's marketing, and the sheer power of the grass-roots effort of thousands of systems admins and programmers who already knew how good Linux is can sum up the overall reasons why Linux is starting to take off. I do not want to give SCO that much credit.

I would rather not given them any credit at all, but objectively, I don't think it can be avoided. Because this success is exactly what SCO wants to happen.

SCO wants Linux to succeed. The more Linux succeeds, the more valuable it becomes. While some have derided McBride and Co. as a bunch of liars, I will point out that they have told the truth about at least one thing: they are not trying to harm Linux. Why should they? If SCO can prove the Linux kernel has unauthorized pieces of SCO's code, they believe they will have control of a technology that has the capability to take on and even beat Microsoft.

By loudly fighting over it, they are elevating its value. If IBM had responded with its own rhetoric, then SCO would have been very happy. In a public battle with IBM, they may have been able to maneuver IBM into a settlement. But Big Blue didn't fall for the move, which puts SCO in the position of being more shrill with each passing week--and now they have to hold on and wait until 2005. That was SCO's first miscalculation.

SCO's next miscalculation was misjudging the importance of the GPL. By actively using the license, SCO may have tripped itself up, since they apparently distributed their "stolen" code right along with Caldera OpenLinux under the GPL. Whoops. So now SCO finds itself in the interesting position of having to attack the GPL.

But you can't have Linux kernel (which SCO wants) without the GPL (which SCO doesn't want). Plus, attacking the license as unconsitutional is just silly and, yes, shrill.

But their last miscalculation, which hit me this morning when I saw the IBM and Sun financial reports and made me laugh out loud, is perhaps the most ironic: whether SCO played a small hand in it or not, Linux the operating system may have become too popular for SCO to get a hold of Linux the kernel.

Billions, with a B, of dollars of business is being made by Linux vendors now. Billions. Linux is now a prize so valuable that I don't think these vendors will stop at anything to let it fall into the hands of any one company. Keeping Linux open is vital to their business models, since keeping it shared means a level playing field and a target that's impossible for competitors to specifically attack.

Open source means shared development efforts and the ability to adapt and change to customer needs much faster than any proprietary model. Letting SCO (or any other single organization) have sole control of the Linux kernel would potentially disrupt a business model with many billions of dollars at stake. Who seriously thinks the major vendors would let that happen?

But that doesn't stop SCO from trying. I think they see Linux as a technology, a commodity that can be bought or litigated into their control. If they had tried this move five years ago, they may have been able to pull it off. But, five years ago, not many would put a lot of faith in the success of a free operating system and the kernel within. They may have waited too long to make their move.

Now, Linux is very strong and growing fast. Deployments are rapidly increasing, the new 2.6 kernel is bringing more features to the market. These are exciting times for Linux. The fact that one small Utah company is willing to risk so much to try to own a piece of it just proves this point.

Even if I am wrong and SCO is just trying to make a quick grab of cash on the inflated stocks, then we will very likely see what out-of-control speculative demand does after the smoke clears: when people get what they need, the market will very quickly vanish and move on to other speculations.

So here is my suggestion for the new year to the Linux community. Don't worry about SCO. One way or another, they will soon quit this fight when they realize the prize is unattainable. Enjoy the fruits of your labors, as Linux rises under its own power to heights never before seen.


On to some housekeeping: next week is the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo at the Javitts Center in New York City. I will be attending, and I hope to see many of you there.

I'll be joining The Linux Show broadcast at 2 p.m. on Jan. 21 and 22, so that's one place I'll be for sure. If you have any comments or critiques for the site, I'm always happy to meet readers in person.

As long-time readers of the site know, when LT attends a conference, the news feed tends to be a bit more sporadic than the usual scheduled feed, as I tend to post stories up as they come in. Please bear with us next week and be assured that my trusty Yellow Dog notebook will be wirelessly working away from the show floor as much as possible.

Before the show is the Jan. 19 Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday here in the US, so this will be an extended three-day weekend coming up for Linux Today and LinuxPlanet. Adjust your expectations accordingly, please.