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A Linux distribution from SCO? The official announcement from SCO got delayed, but word slipped out anyway: the company is going to launch its own distribution of the Linux operating system. New distribution announcements are common, and it may tempting to look at this one as just another late entry into the field, but there is more to it than that. An offering from SCO is likely to become one of the top-tier commercial distributions almost immediately.
SCO tends to keep a low profile compared to companies like Sun, but it is, nonetheless, the largest vendor of proprietary Unix systems out there (in terms of installed systems). Intel-based servers running UnixWare have found their way into corporations worldwide. SCO's installed base is quite large.
It has been clear for years that SCO's core business is threatened by Linux. Why bother with a proprietary Unix for the PC when the alternative is not only free, but also unmatched in quality? One can quibble about the degree of the threat faced by other proprietary operating system vendors, but it is pretty much self-evident that nobody can hope to beat Linux (or the BSD variants, for that matter) in the "Unix-based servers on commodity hardware" market.
SCO's response in the past has been to trash Linux, often in ways that showed substantial contempt. Many of us remember the classic "Are you still using your old Linux system?" letter from a few years ago. And, only last September, SCO distributed a bulletin in Europe with statements like "Linux at this moment can be considered more a play thing for IT students rather than a serious operating system in which to place the functioning, security and future of a business." The company seemed to hope that, if it put down Linux enough, the problem would go away.
SCO is neither the first nor the last company to discover that such tactics work poorly against Linux. Successful companies are those which adapt to the conditions around them; SCO seems to have spent the last year or two figuring out that it needs to adapt in a serious way. And it is in a good position to do so. If you accept the idea that UnixWare shops are going to want to migrate toward Linux, the next question that comes to mind is "which distribution will they pick?"
The answer, of course, is that SCO shops will show a strong tendency toward sticking with SCO. If the company puts together a decent distribution that makes the transition relatively painless, it can probably retain a large percentage of its customers at a premium (for Linux) price. Throw in the Linux service and support line that SCO already has going, and there might be a real business there. So, despite its previous attitude toward Linux, SCO can be expected to be serious about this distribution. Expect SCO to become a major player in the commercial Linux arena.
IBM jumps in again. IBM announced a number of new Linux initiatives this week. These include support for SuSE Linux on RS/6000 systems, a new version of the WebSphere application server for Linux, and a new set of partner initiatives to help promote training and application development for Linux. All of these show that IBM is increasingly interested in the Linux market.
Perhaps the most interesting thing, however, was the announcement that IBM will soon start selling its Thinkpad laptops with Caldera OpenLinux preinstalled. Desktop computers with Linux have been relatively easy to buy for years, but Linux-installed laptops are still scarce. Laptops are notoriously tricky to make work with Linux (indeed, even IBM enlisted Linuxcare's help with the Thinkpad), and not too many companies have wanted to get into that area. Laptop systems can be had from a small company called TuxTops, but larger vendors like VA Linux Systems and Penguin Computing do not offer them.
So IBM is almost alone in this market. If they do a reasonable job, they should see some success here. And, with luck, they will inspire others; we may see an end to difficult laptop installations in the near future.
The reasons for SourceForge's success are clear. It provides a set of needed services (web, FTP, CVS, mailing lists, etc.); it is well equipped with processing power, disk space, and bandwidth; and the whole thing is operated in a highly capable manner. We would still like to see some competition for SourceForge out there for the simple reason that it is scary to have so much of the free software community's eggs in one basket. But, in the meantime, it is hard to complain about how this basket has been operated.
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June 15, 2000