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.comment: Not Forking But Branching

The Light at the End of the Tunnel Might Not Be a Train

  • February 21, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Caldera's plan to abandon the retail distribution channel and concentrate entirely on business use of Linux is bound to disappoint that distribution's many enthusiastic and vocal desktop customers, of whom I am one. But in a broad, long-term sense if this kind of philosophy, the specialization of distributions, is undertaken by other companies, it could be the best possible thing for Linux. (I'm assuming here that this is Caldera's plan. The rumors circulating about Caldera and the plans that its parent company, Canopy, has for it range from the highly plausible to real UFO stuff.)

The Caldera product, Caldera OpenLinux, has traditionally put stability high on its list of important features. When Red Hat was quick to embrace glibc, Caldera (and some others) held back, awaiting a supported release of glibc-2.1. In so doing, it made life harder for users who wanted to build some of the applications that were being released and that would build only against the new C libraries. But it also avoided the tremendous confusion that surrounded the appearance of multiple, incompatible versions of glibc-2.07, which was never an actual glibc release. Stability was more important than was having the latest thing.

That's ancient history in the Linux timeline, and Caldera has shipped glibc-2.1 for close to two years now. Still, it is an example of the distribution's philosophy, and for those who share that philosophy, such things are important.

But there was, is, and perhaps will continue to be confusion: There are dozens of Linux distributions -- this month's Linux Magazine lists 76 of them. Someone new to Linux has very little guidance in choosing one. The boxes don't help -- it's not as if they say, "The very latest stuff, but troublesome for that reason," or "Very popular in Germany," or "An attempt to fix the stuff that's wrong with that one that has the very latest stuff," or "We don't have a box and we only release once every couple of years, but we're pure Linux, we're relatively hard to install and configure, and we don't care whether you use us or not." The boxes are pretty much the same. And that's before we get to the amusing spectacle of distributions stuck inside magazines the way AOL diskettes used to be. Sometimes it seems as if everyone who owns a CD burner is a Linux distributor. And when we hear that a distro is "based on Red Hat" or "based on Debian," we're told, really, nothing without the second half of the sentence: how these new distributions, then, differ from Red Hat or Debian.

I don't know of anyone who has looked closely at the situation and doesn't believe that there will be a shakeout, a winnowing out of the weak sisters in the Linux world. We'll begin to see distributions cease to distribute. There are too many of them for all to survive and there's too little to distinguish one over another. Some well-known companies are already retrenching -- this is not to say that they're in danger, but they're certainly seeking to avoid what they perceive as danger. Some others, less known, will simply slip beneath the surface, their presence scarcely having been noticed, or else just sit there, unmaintained, on some server someplace.

Which leads to the instant case. Though a perfectly competent distribution, Caldera has never made any money selling its retail product. So it may have taken its own business plan, "Linux for Business," to the next logical step. Those boxes, books, shipping, marketing to consumers -- that all costs a lot of money. Selling to businesses costs money, too, but it also makes money. Caldera's desktop plan is limited to what they call "develop-on, deploy-on," meaning that if your business is based on Caldera Linux, some of your people can have it on the desktop, too, unlike Caldera itself, which is mostly a Windows shop. Yes, really. Yet Caldera is doing the smart thing from a business point of view (at least on paper. Whether repopulating the home office with Novell and WordPerfect retreads who don't know Linux, and with SCO people who really don't know Linux, is all that bright is another matter).

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