February 1, 2006

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How open is your source?
New foundation wants more Linux users
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a column titled “Vista time!” that mentioned , at the end, the existence of a free, open source, alternative operating system Linux.

Not the first time I’ve mentioned it, and certainly it’s not news to hardcore geeks.

Those same geeks really get excited when Linux gets press, though. I got one e-mail congratulating me for putting the name out there and encouraging me to try a particular flavor, called Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com). Another person let me know that his Linux User Group had passed the column around its most recent meeting.

One thing that always struck me about Linux was its dispersed, fragmentary nature. Its core code, called the kernel, is actually pretty small, but it doesn’t include the graphical user interface, Web browsers, applications or configuration tools we’ve come to expect in desktop operating systems. For all that, you need to install one distribution or another; some of the better-known flavors include Fedora (from Red Hat), Debian, SUSE and Slackware. While they’re all based on the Linux kernel, they all work just a bit differently, so even with a worldwide community of users, it can be tough to get help or even unify a movement to increase market share.

That is, until Jan. 21, when the Linux Foundation (www.linux-foundation.org) was born.

A bunch of companies are backing this new organization, from hardware vendors like HP, IBM and Intel to software companies Novell and Oracle. That’s not a huge deal; after all, industry backing still hasn’t decided a winner of the whole HD-DVD/Blu-Ray format war. It’s not like they’re forsaking Microsoft, as much as the software companies might want to topple the Redmond giant — they just want to be a part of the Linux market, which is already sizable on servers and growing on desktops.

What’s really neat about this new foundation is that it’s the merging of two other organizations: the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), dedicated to expanding the use of Linux in enterprise and business environments; and the Free Standards Group (FSG), which promoted Linux as a software development platform.

That means that just a little bit of the fragmentation of the Linux world is going away. Much as Windows users might love to loathe Microsoft, at least they know who to loathe. If the Linux Foundation succeeds, it will become a central point of convergence, kind of a Linux headquarters. It’s not developing its own “official” distribution, thank goodness, but rather concentrating on three main goals: promotion, protection and standardization.

Protection will take the form of legal services and sponsoring the salaries of independent kernel developers, including geek god and Linux creator Linus Torvalds. As a “neutral spokesperson” — the foundation’s own words — it can promote the operating system without having business interests in any particular distribution, although having Red Hat as a founding supporter should introduce a grain of salt to that claim.

Standardizing Linux doesn’t mean they’ll all look the same and come from the same company. It’s good that there are creative people taking Linux in many different directions, but someone needs to rein in all the projects and help consumers understand what they’re getting. If someone wants a desktop operating system and end up downloading a version that’s designed for running a print server on a Mac Performa, they ain’t gonna form a good first impression.

Will Microsoft be knocked off its pedestal anytime soon? Probably not. But an alternative growing ever more credible can’t be bad.



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