While sitting around the dinner table with Sun Microsystems the other evening, I wondered how much longer it will take before we stop talking about "distributions" - ours, theirs or Red Hat's or IBM's - and start talking about solutions, allowing the subject of the operating system to fade into a state of transparency.
For Sun, Linux is small and fast and ideal "for the edge of the enterprise", whatever that means to you. Asked whether Linux could ever evolve to a point to compete with Solaris, Sun thinks not and imagines a cosy type of co-existence into the foreseeable future.
Now in many ways, this makes sense. Big boxes and equally big enterprise applications require a pumped-up version of Unix. Sun has this already in the shape of Solaris, so why expand Linux any further? Do a deal with Red Hat, which they have done with Sun's own Linux 5.0 (AKA Red Hat 7.0), and you have a solution that runs neatly across a range of different processors, including those from Intel.
But I have a nagging concern that won't go away. IBM believes, with equal fervour, that Linux can be big, very big and scalable indeed and so you have two of the largest players who appear unable to agree on what Linux will look like two or three years from now.
For many people and, particularly, those who vaguely resemble ZZ-Top fans, this isn't a problem, as Linux will continue to grow and evolve with Zen-like indifference to the forces around it.
However, if you happen to be a government like Germany's or, indeed, China's, and you would like a compelling and cheaper alternative to someone else's operating system, then a rough consensus over the future of Linux is attractive and reduces any potential risks involved in migrating from Windows.
To my mind, Linux needs to become almost invisible. When you buy a PC or a Macintosh, do you really worry too much over the operating system, or is it the features or the solutions that really count in the end?
Sun and IBM and all the other Linux evangelists need to sit down and ask themselves how they would sell Linux, not to a man with a leather jacket, a pony-tail and a beard, but to an attractive 20-something woman with a Renault Clio. This is, of course, an exaggerated analogy, but I firmly believe that for Linux to succeed, something radical needs to be done with both the message and the marketing.
Linux needs to be something more than a "Not Microsoft" vote for the IT director and it needs to be able to attract the small businessman too, who will always be vaguely distrustful of anything that has an "X" in it.
For Linux to progress as a really viable Windows rival it needs rather more than financial muscle and IBM and Sun declaring that it tastes like chocolate and cures cancer.
Instead, Linux needs some kind of reinvention as the processor equivalent of Viagra, perhaps, but certainly something with more imagination than the dull Calvinism that surrounds it today.
So once again, Sun and IBM, Linux has great promise but it needs imagination and a place in the popular consciousness as much as it needs market share and investment.
Shooting anyone seen with a beard and a pony-tail might be a good first step. If it worked for Lenin, it might for Linux too!
What's your view?
Is it time for a clean-shaven Linux? Tell us in an e-mail >> CW360.com reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.
Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.
This was first published in August 2002