Mandrake takes UnitedLinux to task

The popular Linux vendor rubbishes UnitedLinux's claims that it is helping the Linux world

MandrakeSoft, maker of one of the more popular versions of Linux, says it will not join a new initiative combining several of its competitors' products, on the grounds that the move would damage Mandrake's own offering -- and that its competitors have chosen the wrong path to follow.

In a long statement issued on Tuesday, MandrakeSoft dismissed the claims of UnitedLinux -- which will see a joint server distribution from Caldera International, Conectiva, Turbolinux and SuSE Linux -- that the merger is necessary to keep Linux from fragmenting. MandrakeSoft also criticised UnitedLinux's restrictions on distributing its software, saying that the restrictions go against the principles of Free Software, which is more commonly known as open-source software.

The conflict between MandrakeSoft and UnitedLinux reflects a dilemma faced by many open-source companies amid a prolonged economic downturn: whether to stick to what many see as the open-source spirit, or to impose some restrictions on the way their products circulate in order to boost revenues. The companies involved in UnitedLinux have taken what they see as a more practical approach, but MandrakeSoft has criticised this as going against the very principles on which it and its competitors were founded.

Linux has become a popular server operating system because of its stability and low cost, although it has yet to make inroads on the desktop. The operating system is based on the open-source GNU General Public Licence (GPL), which requires that the software be freely available, and can be modified and redistributed, as long as the redistributed versions are also covered by the GPL. The open-source approach has led to a large body of freely available, standard components that make up the core of most Linux distributions.

MandrakeSoft is one of the more ardent supporters of what it calls the Free Software philosophy: for example, the company has a policy of making copies of its new distributions available online as soon as they are finished, usually well before the products appear for sale in shops, even though this approach means that some potential purchasers instead download the software for free.

"The Free Software philosophy is crucial for MandrakeSoft, but doesn't seem to exist in the UnitedLinux project," the company stated.

The company criticised UnitedLinux -- and founders Caldera, Turbolinux and SuSE -- for taking a "proprietary approach", by mingling proprietary software with open-source software, allowing the companies to place certain restrictions on how their products are distributed, and to encourage customers to pay licensing fees.

"The main 'benefit' of this policy is that competitors cannot easily use the finished product," MandrakeSoft stated. "Companies often use this approach to retain tight control over their product to acquire a higher percentage of paying customers."

UnitedLinux has been criticised for restricting the release of binary versions of its software. Software source code, or original programming code, must be compiled into binaries in order to be executed. UnitedLinux will make its source code freely available, as is required under the GPL, but will sell its binaries.

However, Linux companies are coming under increasing pressure to bolster their revenues, and many prominent vendors have turned to proprietary software add-ons in this process. Ximian, for example, makes an open-source clone of Microsoft's Outlook email program called Evolution, but sells proprietary software that allows Evolution to connect to Exchange servers. Red Hat's new Advanced Server, aimed at higher-end enterprise tasks, will not be available as ISO images for burning CDs.

MandrakeSoft itself includes proprietary software such as Sun's StarOffice productivity suite with commercial versions of its distribution, but says it does not allow such add-ons to conflict with the free circulation of its open-source products. "The Free Software approach demands a clear distinction between third-party proprietary software and the core operating system to result in a product that is available as a free download to all users," the company states.

On a more technical level, MandrakeSoft also dismissed UnitedLinux's position that Linux is in danger of fragmentation, and needs a more uniform approach in order to be more appealing to high-end software companies.

MandrakeSoft said that unlike Unix, Linux is not in danger of fragmentation because of the wide use of standardised components: "MandrakeSoft perceives UnitedLinux simply as market consolidation."

The company said that to ensure compatibility, software developers should standardise their binaries on the Linux Standards Base (LSB), which codifies basic Linux technologies. Most major Linux vendors, including UnitedLinux, have agreed to adhere to the LSB.

However, the process of LSB certification is only now beginning, and Red Hat's Advanced Server, for example, will probably not be compliant until 2003 or 2004.

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