On the face of it, the last thing open source software seems to
need is another standards body. Linux, by far the major player in
the sector, already has several standards-setters.
The core, or 'kernel', of Linux is controlled by its creator,
Linus Torvalds, and a small committee. The Linux Professional
Institute is working on training and certification standards. An
Open Hardware Certification Program is looking at plug and
play-style hardware compatibility and being a version of Unix,
Linux is ultimately based on Posix standards anyway.
Yet the Linux world has reacted with cautious optimism to the
launch on 8 May of the Free Standards Group (FSG)
In some ways, the FSG is simply a rationalisation, being an
amalgamation of the Linux Standard Base (LSB) (www.linuxbase.org)
and the Linux Internationalization Initiative (www.li18nux.net).
The LSB was formed in 1998 to increase compatibility between the
various distributions of Linux and to enable software applications
to run on any compliant Linux system.
And this, in essence, will be the mandate of the FSG, but on a
sounder commercial and legal footing. The group will also be able
to work with other open source operating systems, should any
serious candidates emerge.
Dan Quinlan, who chairs the FSG and the LSB, says: "The LSB and
Li18nux were operating as unincorporated organisations, which is
not ideal. There were potential problems with legal liability, no
way to accept and distribute funding and no entity to hold
So far, so good, says the Linux industry. John Winters,
proprietor of specialist reseller Linux Emporium, explains: "The
issue that needs to be addressed is that users buy a piece of
software and it runs. That's about it, really."
Although some applications and tools run on any variant of
Linux, others are developed for a specific "distribution" or the
implementation and associated software supplied by the main
software developers such as Red Hat, SuSe and Caldera.
But universal standards could discourage this in favour of a
more open approach by giving software developers a firm benchmark
against which to test their software. And for many, Linux standards
are not yet an issue anyway.
Andy Butler, a research director at Gartner, says: "I don't
think people are that bothered about standards."
Lowering the standards
Research by Gartner into the main disincentives to the take-up of
Linux shows standards a long fourth behind skills shortages,
support issues and lack of applications. But as Linux matures, this
Colin Tenwick, UK managing director of Red Hat, one of the FSG's
backers, says: "One of the big concerns voiced by a lot of
potential users is the risk of fragmentation. As the distributions
continue to advance and develop and as the platform spreads, there
will be more requirement for some form of consistency, for example
in large-scale or embedded systems."
It also appears that corporates will not be prepared to adopt
Linux to run major applications without decent infrastructure
tools. "Corporates want network management and storage management,"
says Butler. "The FSG could make it easier for these to come about,
although it won't happen overnight."
So it would seem that standards bodies need to tread carefully
in terms of what they codify, and what they leave to individual
distributors because many Linux kernel developers are academics and
enthusiasts who do it for love.
But it is commercial companies such as Red Hat, SuSe and the
rest who must provide support, consultancy, systems integration and
all the other services that will persuade businesses that Linux is
a viable option. The more software there is in the public domain,
the less scope there is for these guys to make a living wage.
This, in part, is what led to the 'Balkanisation' of Unix in the
1980s, as vendors deliberately built in proprietary extras to make
their offerings attractive enough to buy. "As long as the software
developers can earn some money writing applications with
proprietary elements, it will provide sufficient incentive to keep
the core operating system open source," says Michael Trup, managing
director of Linux distributor Interactive Ideas.
If the FSG's standards can create the right environment for this
to occur, it will have succeeded. But in such a fast-moving area as
Linux, where new versions of the kernel appear every few months,
there are concerns that the creation of formal standards will cause
"Any standards body tends to have a slowing-down effect," says
Tenwick. "The challenge is to ensure that they're looking at future
standards and not trying to set in concrete something that's
This could be achieved, believe observers, as long as the FSG
acts like a referee - ratifying and codifying the most popular de
facto standards - and not like a grand strategist, dreaming up new
standards in the committee room.
"The foundation of open source software is taking the standards
that already exist," says Eddie Bleasdale, director of netproject,
a user group for distributed computing. "We don't have time to go
round developing new standards."
Being a rubber stamp - or, more charitably, a seal of approval -
may not sound like a starring role. But the FSG could play a
crucial supporting part in bringing Linux to maturity.
"The Linux market needs to consolidate," says Butler. "As in any
exploding area, there are far too many players. The more consistent
their offerings become, the easier it will be to merge and form
commercially viable businesses."
On the big question of whether Linux can retain its
collaborative, open source structure while maturing into a
commercially viable operating system, the jury is still out.
"The big enemy is still Microsoft, in that that's where the
market share is to be taken," says Martin Petersen, technical
director of specialist services company LinuxIT. "There is a
polarisation in the different Linux products, but it's too early to
see whether this will continue."
But at least by committing finance and manpower to a body such
as the FSG, the Linux industry is finally putting its money where
its mouth is.
"Anything which helps get Linux more standardised is good, and
the involvement of the major players is welcome," says Petersen.
"The bigger players putting manpower and money behind the FSG could
push Linux into the next stage of its development."
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