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Rant Mode Equals One: Linux One, er, Linux Clone?

Feb 03, 2000, 22:37 (41 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

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By Paul Ferris

The Linux One booth on the Linux World Expo show floor.

Linux One has a booth on the Linux World Expo show floor.

For those of you unaware of who Linux One is, they're a company that IPO'd amid skepticism of the Linux community. The booth was unexpected for a variety of reasons.

First, they appeared to have copied the Red Hat IPO paperwork almost verbatim with a search and replace text editor, yet they are not Red Hat, or a company like Red Hat. As a matter of fact, the differences are stark. After questioning their Chief Technology Officer [CTO] the differences emerge as being almost without belief.

I know CEO Bob Young -- he gets open source and why his company must blaze new trails in the software market. Regardless of how you might feel about Red Hat, they have forever changed the face of operating system design in the commercial sector. Linux, thanks to Red Hat, is now accepted as a legitimate way to make money. The Linux community model is one of competitors coming together at the most key points of the technology to say that competition is good, but not at the cost of product interoperability.

Compromising interoperability makes an enemy of the customer, as Microsoft demonstrates. Microsoft's worst enemy or competitor is not Linux -- it is their own installed base of customers. If they cannot keep these people from re-purchasing the technology that they already own, then they are out of business.

This is all part of something that I call "the disease proprietary". It's an ailment that those involved in Linux reflexively or otherwise recognize as destructive. It is an ailment that our technological base is now suffering in full swing. The disease is one that must be eradicated, and companies like Red Hat, SuSE, Caldera, TurboLinux, and others are distinctly aware of this condition.

Linux One, however, doesn't seem to understand. I was surprised to see that they even had a booth, as the controversial startup has done some rather embarrassing things in the wake of their IPO announcement.

I spent about 20 minutes conversing with CTO Dr. Peter Milford. It was to prove to be an exercise in in-coherency at best. The conversation itself was not a new one. It was the same kind of conversation that I have when I'm dealing with someone who likely hasn't even broached the Cathedral and the Bazaar, or even visited www.gnu.org once. The kind of educational conversation that you have with someone who not only doesn't understand proprietary software issues -- they don't see a problem at all.

And this is a Linux company?

The Linux community is an honest one. The turf demands it. Our cards and everything else are face up on the table. You must be able to be competitive in this new paradigm, or forget it. We will not tolerate deception -- even in cases where it might help us.

Why is this? For one thing, it's part of a new way of doing business. Cultivate honesty with your customer and you have a loyal customer. Deceptive marketing works for a while, but the long term effects are so destructive and intolerable that masses of people begin to rebel. They begin to do crazy things, like create their own new products based upon new development models that level the playing field.

But the other reason is more subtle: Honesty is not only the best policy -- it's the only way a group of people can remain productive across vast distances and rapid changes.

So is Linux One an honest company? Well, the piece of paper that I picked up from their booth listed Dr. Peter Milford as follows: "Dr. Peter Milford, CTO, is a respected Linux developer, author, and visionary."

Odd, I'd never heard of this guy at all before.

After conversing with him for quite a while, I had a hard time believing it too.

I guess I wasn't alone, because he asked for the paper back and changed it to look like this: "Dr. Peter Milford, CTO, is a respected Linux developer, author, and visionary."

He explained the anomaly in regards to the strike out. It seems that they were a bit unprepared for the show in regards to their marketing materials and that some of the wording was a bit wrong. He was apologetic.

Unfortunately, I didn't witness them crossing out the words for everyone else, and as I stood there, several people came by and picked up their own un-edited copy for future reference.

Sorry, but that's pretty dishonest marketing, as far as I'm concerned. I have to wonder how much editing really needed to take place on their marketing material to bring it in speck with the truth.

I tried repeatedly to raise the question of Open Source and Free Software development models in such a way to allow CTO Dr. Peter Milford to demonstrate a grasp of the subject, but it was an exercise in futility. The world is changing for most Linux distributors and even proprietary Unix companies -- yet Linux One seems to think that they can create a valid business model by grabbing a buzzword like Linux, editing an IPO document and some source text in a Linux distribution, and hiring some technical people to hopefully appear as legitimate as possible.

It's not that simple. You need look no further than the hard work that Red Hat and the others in the commercial Linux sector have been doing to understand that this model has it's complexities, but even more important, it involves cooperation with a democratic process -- the Linux development community. Without these value-added items, without some legitimate support value, without a grasp of the new paradigm of Free Software, a company such as Linux One is likely not going to make it.

And what about understanding the open source model? What about how Linux One is going to make money?

CTO Dr. Peter Milford explained it as follows:

"Our next version will have applications on it that no one else has."

I asked the one dollar question: "Proprietary or Open Source".

The explanation was rather clear: proprietary.

And, of course, I had to know just what kind of proprietary applications these would be. The response here was more vague. He really didn't seem to know exactly, or he couldn't say (they were, after all, in their quiet period).

But he did like to talk about how popular their distribution would be if it were the only one to ship Microsoft Office for Linux, for example. As a matter of fact, he made the analogy several times. And he explained that proprietary applications such as these would give them a guaranteed value over their competitors, unlike creating applications and say, releasing the source code.

I have to add that this kind of thinking is from the dark ages of software distribution. It's the Microsoft model of software creation. It's the one doomed to extinction. As things like K Office, a free office clone, come on-line in the Linux distribution channel, people expecting to make money by strong-arming customers into decisions are going to be left in the lurch.

And that will include any company that doesn't get it, such as Linux One.

I spent some time asking about their ability to add value. Internationalization came up as a way that they would be adding value. Were they a member of the Linux Internationalization processes standards bodies?

No, as a matter of fact, Dr. Milford didn't even seem to be aware of it. If he was, he wasn't aware enough to be able to comment intelligently on the subject. Standards? Why were those important anyway to a company whose greatest dream seemed to involve putting some proprietary product out on top of Linux.

No, the problems appear to run pretty deeply here as far as I can tell.

I'm a pretty optimistic guy usually. I look at companies that are blazing Linux trails, and I know that they will be on top in a very short time. But Linux One isn't blazing any trails here as far as I can tell. They appear to be taking Wall Street for a ride, and hoping that their presence at the largest Linux show on the planet will be tolerated by the group of people who have helped fight the very disease that they don't understand.

They have little to show in the value added department at all. I mentioned the fact that a lot of Linux companies were hoping to make money supporting their Linux distribution as part of their added value, and he said that they hoped to do the same thing. So the next question I had was "How many support people do you have?"

The answer took some pushing, but they do in fact have two support people.

They're very good support people, he added.

I suppose that they had better be.

Melissa London of Red Hat explained to me that their support people numbered in the hundreds, and that in the affiliate channel there were trained systems people in the thousands that were certified on Red Hat.

But she was more specific about Red Hat's relationship to Free Software in general: "The model of the future is supporting and support of free software in operating systems. Adding proprietary software and selling that in a box is a thing of the past."

So I guess that Linux One isn't even a hopeful [Red Hat] Linux Clone. They don't even appear to be related.

Paul Ferris is an Editor for Linux Today, and a Web developer for internet.com, the parent company of Linux Today. He's been covering Open Source and Free Software technology for over two years.