What's the fuss about... UnitedLinux?

It's like the bad old days of Unix...

It's like the bad old days of Unix...

'What's the fuss about...' is a new series for silicon.com from analyst house Quocirca. In his first column, leading commentator Clive Longbottom casts a critical eye over vendors peddling the Linux OS and says: Don't believe the hype... Linux - main challenger to the future of Microsoft, or is it the new foundation for chaos in the marketplace? Vendors and users alike are refusing to listen to the voice of history and the market is going through a terrible bout of déjà vu. Many, many years ago, AT&T owned the rights to an operating system that had come out of academia. It had reached version 5, release 4 (System 5, Release 4 or SVR4 for short). AT&T licensed this operating system as Unix to any company that wanted to use it, provided they pay for a licence and did not change the base code. The idea was to have a portable operating system, where vendors could write an application once and the operating system vendors would compete with each other on service and support. All the big players in the market took their licences and started to use the operating system. After a while, it became obvious some of these systems had changed beyond recognition and AT&T revoked licences - the companies involved then renamed their operating systems (they couldn't call them SVR4 any longer and really couldn't call them Unix) and carried on in the market. At the height of the Unix boom, there were over 60 different flavours, none of which could run applications written for any other flavour. AT&T tried to regain some control, Posix-compliance was born, and promptly died a death when Microsoft managed to get NT certified as a Posix-compliant operating system. The market grew, and attrition and mergers and acquisitions led to a market where there are only a few major Unix flavours left - AIX, HP-UX and Solaris being the main ones. Fast forward. More recently, an operating system appeared from an academic. It was built on a controlled kernel but was based on open source so anyone could make changes to the operating system and could offer these changes back to the world as a whole. The kernel was immutable, meaning any company taking the operating system could not change it and still call it - you've guessed by now - Linux. Many companies took the kernel and started selling it as their flavour of Linux. Although they did not touch the kernel, they added code as sets of callable libraries and encouraged software developers to utilise these calls. In the midst of a Linux boom, there are nearly 100 flavours out there and applications have to be written (or at least recompiled) for each one specifically. Attrition is already happening and merger and acquisition activity is beginning to ramp up. The main activity is an attempt by four of the bigger Linux players (Caldera, Connectiva, SuSe and TurboLinux), who have got together to create a single version of Linux, called UnitedLinux. This Linux will be immutable - the OS comes on one CD which cannot be changed in any way by the vendors. They will still compete in the market, through services and support, and also through the contents of a second, value-add CD, which will be unique to each company. However, a major vendor has chosen to sit it out - Red Hat, the vendor which has the major agreements with the likes of HP and IBM for the provision of their Linux systems. So, in theory, UnitedLinux is very nice. Users get a known base to work from. Hardware vendors can certify against a known Linux flavour that should have an appreciable market presence. Software developers can write for a larger user base, without the need to re-code or recompile. But what's in it for the four members of UnitedLinux? They each have their strengths in different geographies and each has their own existing channel. However, they will now be unable to compete against each other on technical excellence - they are hamstrung by the prime CD. The second CD cannot hold anything which an application uses as a main service, otherwise the application will not run on the vanilla operating system and will not be able to be certified as UnitedLinux compatible. Let us say UnitedLinux is successful as a concept. Let us say that between Red Hat and UnitedLinux, the other 95 Linux vendors begin to die away. After 12 months UnitedLinux vendors begin to have to compete head-to-head with each other. Let us say that one UnitedLinux vendor is more successful than the others. This will lead to the runt of the litter beginning to die away, unless the other three shore it up, which will get the DoJ interested in anti-competitive and cartel practices. Let us then say one of the four goes out of business - those users who have gone down the UnitedLinux route are not likely to say: 'Oh well, never mind, let's move on to the next UnitedLinux player.' They are more likely to say: 'Well, I've learnt my lesson - where's Red Hat's telephone number?' UnitedLinux is a great concept - in theory. Linux is just another operating system, just as the original Unix was, and will stand or fall on its capabilities within the markets it goes for. Already, as a web platform, as a network application server platform and as an embedded operating system, Linux has shown its worth and the problems of different variants don't create major problems. As a major application platform, Linux has not caught the vendors' or the users' attention in the way it was hoped, but it is beginning to make inroads. It may well be that the final Linux battles come down to Red Hat versus UnitedLinux - but UnitedLinux as an umbrella with four competing companies all holding it up is doomed to internal problems which may break it. The only hope for the company is for a merger to be announced, to iron out the competition and gain critical mass directly in the market. At that point, UnitedLinux becomes a force to be reckoned with. **Quocirca is a leading, user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the 'big picture'. For a full summary of its activities see www.quocirca.com, or reach the company's founding directors by emailing quocirca@silicon.com.