A Common Language for Penguins
By Steve Hamm
SEPTEMBER 13, 2004
Linux is finally getting a standard to ensure that software written for
the open-source operating system runs on all of its varieties
In its campaign to discredit Linux, the main rival to its Windows
operating system, Microsoft once published a witty print advertisement
in Germany that showed four penguins standing in a row. One looked
normal, one had jackrabbit ears, the next had a frog's head and
antlers, and the last had the ears of a pig and an elephant's trunk.
Microsoft's point: Linux, with its penguin mascot, comes in several
varieties. The tagline said: "An open operating system has not only
Microsoft's ad wasn't just clever: It pointed out a potentially serious
problem with Linux. One of the attractions of the open-source operating
system is that unlike with Unix, which splintered into a dozen
incompatible varieties, people writing applications for Linux are
supposed to be able to write them once and have them run on any Linux
version. That helps make it an effective alternative to Windows.
BROAD AGREEMENT. Already, however, applications written to run on the
most popular commercial Linux package, Red Hat Linux, have to be
tweaked slightly to run on Novell SuSe Linux or other less-popular
versions. As the makers of these products add more capabilities around
the basic program, the potential for more serious incompatibilities
Fortunately for Linux fans, help is on the way. On Sept. 13, the Free
Standards Group, a nonprofit organization set up to assure
compatibility between Linux versions, released a technology standard
called Linux Standard Base 2.0 -- a recipe to assure that applications
will run on any version.
All of the dozens of Linux variations worldwide have agreed to comply
with the standard, as have the large tech companies that back Linux,
including Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, AMD, and IBM. "This goes a long
way toward assuring end-user organizations that they'll have
interoperable, compatible products from all of the suppliers," says
analyst Dan Kusnetzky at market researcher IDC.
"A TRUE OPEN ALTERNATIVE." This move could open up a new avenue for
Linux. Up until now, it has been used primarily as an operating system
for Web sites, search engines, e-mail systems, and complex
number-crunching jobs. It has just a foothold in the realm of running
corporate applications -- everything from accounting and
human-resources management to supply-chain and customer-relationship
Most of the major creators of corporate applications made code changes
in their products to operate on Red Hat and Novell SuSe, but few had
gone the extra step of doing so for lesser versions -- particularly
those now emerging as players in places like China and India.
Meanwhile, many smaller applications makers hadn't bothered to adapt
their software to run on any versions of Linux. "If the Linux industry
can unite and pull this off, there's a real shot at a true open
alternative to Microsoft," says Jim Simlin, executive director of the
Free Standards Group.
Will the application makers go for it en masse? It's too soon to tell.
None of them had signed on to an earlier version of the standard --
principally because it didn't support C++, the programming language
used to write most commercial applications. The new version remedies
that, so it's more compelling.
ANOTHER PLUS. "This would make life easier. Anything that allows us to
move to the different flavors more easily is a good thing," says Jeremy
Burton, senior vice-president for marketing at Veritas Software, a
leading seller of storage-management software that has adapted all of
its products to run on Linux.
Even if many application makers adopt the standard, it's no assurance
that Linux will quickly gain ground on Windows. But without it, Linux
growth might have been stunted. And with it, corporate tech purchasers
have one more reason to like Linux. In this long battle over the future
of computing, every bit counts.
Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York
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