Getting wired: Caldera - a burnt-out case?

An early open-source champion is threatening to revoke IBM's licence to use Unix code.

An early open-source champion is threatening to revoke IBM's licence to use Unix code.

The news that the SCO Group has filed a lawsuit against IBM, alleging "misappropriation of trade secrets, tortious interference, unfair competition and breach of contract", and requesting damages "no less than $1bn" is extraordinary enough. But on closer inspection, the story turns out to be even more remarkable.

As the timeline indicates, SCO originally began by selling Xenix, a version of Unix for Intel 8086 and 8088 processors. What the timeline does not mention is the fact that Xenix was a joint project of SCO and a certain small Seattle company called Microsoft. It is rather ironic that Microsoft helped develop, and sold, a Unix variant running on Intel processors a decade before Linus Torvalds sat down in his Helsinki bedroom and started coding his own take on the idea.

SCO continued to sell its Unix solutions for Intel, but once GNU/Linux reached version 1.0 in March 1994, it was fighting a losing battle. GNU/Linux cost nothing, offered most of the power of SCO's products, and gave software engineers the code to look at, change and improve.

Although SCO made various half-hearted concessions to users - for example, in May 1998 it started offering low-cost licences and the source code, but only for "ancient" versions of its software - in many ways the GNU/Linux versus SCO story reads like a dry run for the later GNU/Linux versus Microsoft tussle. SCO's final, symbolic defeat at the hands of GNU/Linux occurred in 2001, when most of it was bought by Caldera.

Although relatively unknown, Caldera can claim with some justice to have been one of the principal architects of GNU/Linux's success in the mainstream business sector. The company grew out of a "skunkworks" project at Novell that used GNU/Linux to create a graphical browser, complete with a virtual world interface that let users navigate the network and move around the intranet. Impressive enough, but what makes this truly amazing is the fact that it was achieved back in 1994, when Netscape was still called Mosaic Communications.

It is an interesting exercise to contemplate how online and computer history might have been different had Novell decided to develop this virtual world internet browser running on top of GNU/Linux in 1994. But it didn't, choosing instead to fight an increasingly hopeless battle against TCP/IP that led directly to its marginal status today.

After being rebuffed by Novell management, some of the skunkworks team decided to set up their own company based around GNU/Linux, and Caldera was founded in October 1994. The name - which refers to the bowl-shaped crater left by a collapsed volcano - was inspired by a camping trip taken by one of the company's founders.

Caldera came out with its first product, Caldera Network Desktop, in 1995. This offered a complete graphical user interface for GNU/Linux at a time when Windows 95 had only just appeared.

To bolster the usefulness of the open source operating system for business, Caldera worked with other software companies to port their enterprise programs: one notable success was the Adabas D database from Software AG.

It also carried out portings on its own. For example, in 1997 it announced that it would port to GNU/Linux the entry-level web server of Netscape - at that time, the leading internet company - as well as the Navigator browser. Unfortunately, a month after Caldera proudly announced its exclusive rights to Netscape Navigator on GNU/Linux, the Mozilla open source project was unveiled, making its multimillion-dollar licensing deal worthless.

Caldera supported GNU/Linux development in other ways, too. Alan Cox, the number two kernel hacker, received a two-processor system so that he could add multiprocessor support to Linux. This appeared in version 2.0 of Linux, which was released in June 1996.

Caldera seemed to be doing the Linux world a favour when it bought SCO and, with it, all the rights to Unix. If nothing else, this appeared to guarantee that there would never be any intellectual property issues for Linux as far as Unix was concerned. But the recent action of Caldera - which was transformed back into SCO when a new chief executive took over in 2002 - reveals the mutability of fate.

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