Last month, long-standing rumours finally gelled when a couple of the better-known Linux distributors - Caldera and SuSE - got together with two others which are virtually unknown in this part of the world - Turbolinux and Conectiva - to form an alliance called UnitedLinux.
Conectiva is a leading Linux player in Latin America and Turbolinux has developed its business and its own localised versions of the operating system in the Asia-Pacific area.
On 30 May, the four companies announced that they would be merging their individual distributions into a single core product aimed at the corporate market worldwide.
The announcement may have laid to rest the rumours, but it triggered a flurry of misunderstanding that is still in the process of being sorted out through "clarifications" to the press. The most obvious anomaly was the fact that in sharp contradiction to the name UnitedLinux, two of the most prominent Linux distributors were missing from the alliance.
Red Hat, the dominant distributor of Linux to the server market, and Mandrake, a high-profile Linux desktop vendor, had failed to join the party.
At the UnitedLinux launch, Caldera CEO Ransom Love tap-danced somewhat clunkily around this question. "Pulling together the four companies with their very diverse business and cultural backgrounds and markets was a daunting task We have put a lot of time and effort into just bringing together the framework that was needed."
In other words, presumably, getting together with the best-known Linux distributor, Red Hat, would have been too much trouble. But the thought was there: "We started from the inception with the concept that this framework could be leveraged beyond the four companies. The intent was we could then go out and effectively invite others to participate within that framework."
So would the UnitedLinux consortium be talking to Red Hat? According to Love, the gang of four had no sooner signed the articles of association than he was making overtures to Red Hat's vice president of business development. "I visited Michael Evans last night," said Love. "I explained to him what the initiative was and invited [Red Hat] to participate." So Love assures us that Red Hat has been invited, while explaining its absence on the grounds that the company has not had time to consider the offer.
Caldera Emea vice president Chris Flynn believes Red Hat must have been aware that the UnitedLinux initiative was on the way. "Discussions have been going on about [the initiative] for at least a year," he says, adding "the door is firmly open for Red Hat and others". But it looks more like a door to the passenger compartment than the driving seat.
Fiona Phelps, UK marketing manager for Red Hat, doesn't see her company rushing to jump on board any time soon. "I think it's great that these guys have come together," she says. "But Red Hat is in that market at the moment, getting these products to our enterprise clients."
With the lion's share of the corporate Linux market - at least 40 per cent, according to IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky, and double the combined share of the UnitedLinux alliance - Red Hat doesn't seem to have much incentive. "Why would we join?" asks Phelps.
Flynn concedes that the invitation isn't likely to be accepted. "Red Hat is doing many good things to further the cause of Linux," he says, "but if I were to place a bet, I'd say the odds were against it coming in."
A little confusion
There has also been press confusion about the way the individual companies that make up the alliance will be charging for their product. In the week following the launch, online industry watcher The Register reported that Caldera would be applying per seat licensing to its own edition of UnitedLinux.
Per seat licensing - where the price is determined by the number of users accessing the server - is the norm for proprietory server software. But the free software community's general public licence (GPL), which covers Linux only, makes provision for a fee to cover the cost of copying and distributing the software.
The issue first appeared in June 2001, when The Register accused Caldera of introducing "Microsoft-style per seat" licensing for its OpenLinux workstation distribution.
In reality, it was not much more than a per user support fee, but Caldera seemed to be trying to tie the fee to product sales, using the fact that OpenLinux mixes proprietory licensed material in with its otherwise free software distribution.
Flynn says there has clearly been a misunderstanding about this. "I think people have become confused between 'per server' and 'per seat'. It's per server licensing," he insists.
This puts Caldera in line with the usual pricing model for Linux, where the supplier takes a one-off fee for each copy of the software it sells. In reality, the per server fee charged by Linux distributors is not so much a product price as a service charge, which pays for the 60-day, 90-day or one-year support offered with the package.
Get a grip
Eddie Bleasdale, CEO of open source consulting company NetProject, believes the software industry in general needs to understand the distinction and get to grips with the change that is taking place. "People have got to make the transition from being a product-based industry to a services-based industry," he says.
That is a point on which the UnitedLinux alliance seems to have yet to make up its mind. At the launch, Caldera's Love claimed UnitedLinux would continue to combine both the product and the service model.
"The channel is very diverse depending on what part of the world you're in," he said at question time. "Many markets are still product focused and cannot move to the pure services model."
His remarks seem to suggest that software which is essentially freely downloadable from the Internet can continue to be packed in boxes padded out with polystyrene and passed down a channel where the value-add is limited to stocking and shifting.
Bleasdale is scathing about the model's prospects of success. "Until we make that transition, we're going to end up with people who are trying to do everything possible to sell a product," he says.
NetProject takes a diametrically opposite approach. "We say it's a services-based industry - like accountants or solicitors, you don't sell a product, you sell what's in your head."
To give Love's product model any chance of working in the long term, distribution of UnitedLinux would need to be limited to the channel and withheld from the Internet. Is this the plan? "They can't do that," was Bleasdale's immediate reaction. "That breaks the GPL."
The GPL requires that distributors make the source code of any GPL'd software available "for a charge no more than your cost of physically performing source distribution".
The usual way of complying with this is to provide a site from which the source code can be freely downloaded. But the licence does not require distributors to offer binaries for free download over the Internet.
As a convenience to potential customers, developers and anyone curious about Linux, distributors have traditionally made ISO images (burnable onto CD-ROMs) of their core products freely downloadable from their Web sites.
This convention, "in the spirit of free software", has done much to encourage the adoption of the operating system by users and developers, but it has also eroded one-off sales, putting financial pressure on distributors.
In the spirit?
Ransom Love may have been studying the GPL with some care when at the launch press conference he declared: "We will make the source code freely available in complete compliance with the open source community. [But] the binaries will not be made freely available for a variety of reasons."
This defiance of the spirit, if not the letter, of free software sent a shiver through the development community, suggesting some sense of desperation within the UnitedLinux alliance.
Source code covering every individual element of UnitedLinux - kernel, tools and utilities - could easily be made available to comply with the letter of the GPL in a form that rendered it difficult to recreate the distribution.
Love's "variety of reasons" included "focusing more on the business customer", a "support issue" and "certification on a global basis". But Red Hat, which certainly sells to business customers and stands behind its distribution, has always made copies of its non-proprietory core distribution available from its Web site.
As has SuSE. Greg Blepp, who runs international operations for SuSE and heads up the company's contribution to the UnitedLinux initiative, is certain that freely downloadable binaries will be available once the main distribution has been brought to the market.
"I think there has been either a misinterpretation or a misunderstanding," he says. "We will truly follow what has been indicated in the past to the open source community. [And I admit] we need to get a statement out very shortly to clarify the situation."
While offering free binaries may have a negative effect on sales, the upside is that third-party developers are encouraged to get into the Linux game.
Safety in numbers
Love's statement that "the binaries will not be made freely available" sounds unequivocal, and cynics have seized on it as an indication that the UnitedLinux initiative is primarily about four battered companies huddling together to find a working business model - even if it angers the community that provides the core technology.
But it is doubtful whether strong-arm tactics of this kind would have much of a future. While distributors such as Caldera and SuSE play an important part in integrating, testing, packaging and marketing the wild raw material, the vast bulk of the grunt work in programmer days will, for the foreseeable future, still be put in by the free software community.
Like Evian, UnitedLinux bottles the product. But unlike Evian, it doesn't own the well. A face-saving retreat from Love's 'no binaries' position seems to be on the cards. It might well take advantage of a potential get-out clause with which Love rounded out his statement at the launch.
In response to a second question, he reiterated that "the binaries, we are not making freely available", but added: "If someone were to take the source code and try to compile [it], they could not use the UnitedLinux brand. [It] would not be a certified platform"
The latter part of the statement broadly echoes the position with Red Hat free downloads. The core of Red Hat distribution, either as individual packages or ready-to-load CD images, is accessible from its Web site.
In accordance with the GPL, any third party downloading the binary code can redistribute it on CDs, charging customers for the convenience. But, reasonably enough, these third parties would not be entitled to use the Red Hat brand name and, of course, there is no Red Hat guarantee attached.
SuSE's Blepp suggests that when early test versions of the UnitedLinux distribution go out to corporate customers in the early autumn, ISO images - indistinguishable from the corporate product, but without the branding - will be made available over the Web on a 'help yourself' basis.
These ISO images would not be 'certified UnitedLinux', although they might be bit-for-bit identical with the official distribution. So, stretching a point, "we will not be distributing binaries of UnitedLinux". Call the free product something like 'Open UL' and everybody's happy.
A weighted argument
Well, perhaps not everybody. Richard Stallman, the far-sighted software guru who started the whole free software movement rolling back in the mid-80s, has never been at ease with the commercial adoption of the operating system he prefers to call GNU/Linux - because it includes a high proportion of software from his own GNU Project.
Following the launch of UnitedLinux, Stallman's Free Software Foundation (FSF) issued a statement that it was closely watching the four-company alliance and was "very concerned with how they are proceeding".
The Foundation's particular worry was per seat licensing - now seemingly laid to rest, if Chris Flynn's assurances carry any weight. But it is the potentially inflammatory mixture of free and proprietory software that lies at the heart of the FSF's objection.
In his public lectures, Stallman reviles proprietory software as "unethical" and "anti-social" and describes the addition of proprietory packages to a distribution such as Linux as "defeating the purpose" of free software.
Whether or not we agree with Stallman's passionate moral premise, his practical conclusion carries a lot of weight. If a small addition of proprietory software covered by Microsoft-style licensing is tightly integrated into a particular Linux distribution, a distributor could end up with a cheaply created product (because the free software community has done the bulk of the work) that can be sold with the same kind of rigid intellectual property controls that have made packages such as Microsoft Office such a cash cow.
In this respect, says Stallman, "Caldera has been one of the worst offenders". He is clearly concerned that Caldera's track record may be carried over to UnitedLinux, which he describes as "a perverse system which is neither united nor Linux". www.caldera.com
What is United Linux?
In May, four Linux distributors, with interests centred in different parts of the globe, formed an alliance to announce a single standards-based Linux distribution, aimed at the corporate server market.
SuSE (Europe) Technology
Caldera (US) Technology/business model
Conectiva (Latin America) Localisation
TurboLinux (Asia Pacific) Localisation
The distribution is based on two existing standards developed by the Linux community, to which all the major Linux distributors (including Red Hat and Mandrake) already subscribe. UnitedLinux is, therefore, only part of a general process of unification being carried out by the Linux community as a whole.
Linux Standard Base The Linux Standards Base is designing and promoting a set of standards that will extend compatibility between Linux distributions, with the goal that software developed on any compliant Linux system will run on any other.
Li18Nux This is the Linux Internationalisation initiative. Its focus is to establish a core set of APIs and components of Linux distributions so that internationalised Linux applications can run correctly on any compliant Linux distribution. It is planned that the next major revision of LSB should incorporate Li18nux. This unification is being managed by the Free Standards Group.
This was first published in July 2002