The newly hatched Linux Standard Base 2.0, and the support from much of the industry that the Free Standards Group announced last week, are significant for many reasons, but they should not be confused as a new united front against Microsoft.
The FSGs LSB 2.0, which was released late last month, gives Linux platform vendors a common base on which to write applications. Ideally, LSB would ensure that applications written for Linux will run as readily and perform as well on a Red Hat distribution on Hewlett-Packard or Dell hardware as a Novell SuSE distribution does on IBM hardware.
LSB was designed to thwart Linux fragmentation, or forking, but few signed on to the original standard. The new version adds critical support for 32-bit and 64-bit platforms and the C++ programming language.
Proponents of the new LSB and new supporters, including IBM, HP, Dell, Intel and the major software distributions, are gushing that LSB will open a new era of interoperability among Linux solution providers of all stripes. But these steps should be taken carefully. Supporters must go beyond merely signing off on this agreement to truly supporting it—not to save themselves from Microsoft, but from themselves.
As we have seen in the past, these types of agreements—think CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) or DCE (Distributed Computing Environment), for instance—are not computing panaceas but an ever-evolving path toward the ever-elusive goal of interoperability. That path requires all parties to execute on the interoperability front.
The reason this shouldnt be mistaken for another nail in Windows coffin is that, despite efforts at cooperation, Linux vendors are still competing against one another. LSB 2.0 potentially eases one barrier to cooperation, but recall that a recent unification effort built around LSB 1.1—Caldera Internationals ill-fated UnitedLinux—fell by the wayside after The SCO Group (formerly known as Caldera) decided it was better off seeking revenue through suing half the industry, not to mention its own customers.
The fact is that Novell and Red Hat, though, are entering a new phase of intense competition as the two major enterprise Linux providers. eWEEK Senior Analyst Jason Brooks points out in his Sept. 13 review that Novells SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 has a "polish and completeness" that "indicate that Novell is on course to challenge ... Red Hat." HP, Intel and IBM are also fighting one another for server market share.
Another conundrum, should all the vendors eventually support LSB completely, is that what would be left to compete on becomes packaging and distribution methods and service and support plans. And these areas can be trickier than software development. In addition, those of us who have been observing this industry long enough know there are few software companies that can resist the temptation of value-added development, à la Microsoft, such that a new module will run on any platform but may "run best" on my platform.
Microsoft, to be sure, has its own problems and is ripe for targeting by a united Linux front. As eWEEK also reported this month, the company isnt shying away from articulating its fear of the Linux "threat." In its 10-K report to the SEC, Microsoft acknowledged losing business to Linux and open source, particularly as governments of cities, states and even whole countries make the switch. Microsofts "Longhorn" (aka "Longwait" or "Latehorn") delays and trimming of key features such as WinFS only give the Linux community more opportunity to pounce on disenfranchised Windows shops.
Linux is growing fast, but that alone wont ensure it will continue to grow at this rate or that corporations will continue to invest in it. If LSB 2.0 means anything, its that whats past is prologue. The stakes are now higher than ever for Linux, and the vendors will have to deliver. Eventually, it will be up to the enterprise customer to decide where to go from here with Linux, whether its deployed to trim costs, consolidate servers, or, who knows, stick it to Microsoft once and for all.
News Editor Scot Petersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.