Opinion

Will the suppliers break Linux?

Proprietary Linux systems could undermine the open source dream

The world's biggest computer company is now run by a Linux weenie. Samuel Palmisano will officially take over as chief executive of IBM on 1 March, but he is already president and chief operating officer - so there is no doubt about where the power now lies.

Palmisano spoke at the Linuxworld exhibition and conference in New York a year ago - which was unusual in itself. What was even more surprising was seeing an IBM executive mocking a competitor.

"Linux is the bathtub of code and it is available to everyone. But, as a supplier, I can take anything I want out of that bathtub and call it Linux," he said, quoting an unnamed source. "What do you think about that? Do you buy this? Come on. That is ridiculous. Right?" (Click here for more).

Sorry, Sam, but Ed Zander, Sun's chief operating officer, had a point. If you use "Linux" not just for the kernel but as a short word for a huge operating system distribution - which should more honestly be called GNU/Linux, to give credit to Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation - then anybody can bundle anything. Unless you go for the Debian GNU/Linux that Stallman recommends, there is not even a guarantee that all the bundled software you receive will be non-proprietary.

In the interview that Palmisano was quoting, Zander went on to say, "Call me in a year or two when IBM's Linux is different from HP's Linux, is different from Dell's Linux and [a user] will have to recompile five times. You have broken it effectively. So you cannot depend on one Linux."

In short, Zander is of the opinion that the hardware manufacturers will break Linux in exactly the same way they broke Unix a decade ago.

He could be wrong, but the idea has to be faced. Indeed, my support for Linux, and my predictions that it would succeed, were based on the opposite assumption. GNU/Linux could win, I thought, because, unlike Sun's Solaris, IBM's AIX, Compaq's Ultrix and countless other proprietary flavours, it was not owned by one manufacturer and could be adopted by all of them.

In the short term, manufacturers have used Red Hat, SuSE, Debian and other Linux distributions, but there is no guarantee about the long term.

There is nothing to stop IBM becoming the dominant player in the commercial Linux business and standardising on its own version - unless the Free Standards Group can make its "standards platforms", which were announced last Thursday, stand up. Wish it luck.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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This was first published in February 2002

 

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