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
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
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,
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