Up Periscope

Taking a second look at Linux

By Bill Machrone
PC Week

October 21, 1996

Users of Linux get a kick out of the notion that Linux might actually cause some consternation in Redmond, as I noted in my Oct. 7 column. I can assure you, however, that no Microsoft employee will sit bolt upright in bed tonight and exclaim, "But what about Linux?"

It just isn't on Microsoft's radar screen, because it isn't on Microsoft customers' radar screens. If Linux had a big advertising budget, it would be a different story. But that scenario is unlikely, given Linux's economics. The very distribution mechanism that makes Linux free also strikes terror into the hearts of potential corporate customers, primarily because they don't understand it.

In my previous Linux column, I glossed over the distribution arrangement. Linux is distributed under the GNU General Public License, or GPL. GNU is the Unix-compatible software distributed by the Free Software Foundation (http://www.gnu.ai.mit.edu/fsf/fsf.html). The GPL (or "copyleft," as opposed to copyright) is a fascinating document, worthy of your study. You can find it at http://www.gnu.ai.mit.edu/copyleft/%20gpl.html. In essence, it prevents parties from taking freely distributed code, modifying it to make it proprietary, then copyrighting it to prevent further modifications. All modifications, along with source code, must be passed along to customers without restriction. You can charge for your version, but you can't stop everyone else from incorporating your improvements into their versions. Of course, you can charge for service and support.

That's the scary part for corporate customers. I've counted at least 14 variants of the Linux Distribution package, some from commercial establishments on CD-ROMs, others on floppy disks and some just downloads. They're not created equal, even though they may embody the same version of Linux. Some have better installation routines; others have better support files and more recently compiled utilities and applications. Some are LAN-centric; some are desktop-centric. Some are Intel-specific; others focus on ports such as Alpha and SPARC.

Corporations also fear that the version they've selected might have "improvements" that are counterproductive or are not adopted by the Linux community. The GPL guarantees that Linux will continue to be developed in parallel by a large number of people. The dissemination of new versions, patches and enhancements via the Net guarantees instant, and constant, updating. This can be disconcerting to organizations that are used to long pauses between versions. So you go to one of the packagers, such as Caldera, Red Hat or Craftworks, that will put a familiar versioning face on Linux.

The latest Linux features include PCMCIA and Plug-and-Play support, support for removable media, drivers for hundreds of video cards, and support for popular network operating systems. .

Perhaps Linux will reach critical mass one day, just as the Web did, and emerge simultaneously into everyone's consciousness. Then again, perhaps not.

Good night, Redmond. Sleep tight.

Bill Machrone is vice president of technology for Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. He can be reached at bill_machrone@zd.com.


Copyright (c) 1996 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company.