Editor's Note: Linux in 2001
Linux as a component, not a product
January 22, 2001
I'm not one for grand, sweeping statements, especially the one you see at this time of year. You know: those previews that make bold predictions about what will happen in the coming years. Usually, those sorts of previews are so vague and sweeping as it be worthless ("Linux will increase in popularity").
But I think that 2001 will be an important one in the evolution of Linux, and that there are a number of trends that bears some watching in the coming months. We are on the brink of an important transitional period for Linux, as it moves from the grungy garage to the corporate IT department. But Linux's exact form during this transitional times remains to be seen, and exactly what Linux will look like after the move is still up in the air.
Nevertheless, here are my predictions for Linux in 2001.
LINUX AS A COMPONENT, NOT A PRODUCT
To date vendors have had problems making money off of Linux as a product. Red Hat Software has abandoned efforts to bring Linux to the desktop as a shrinkwrapped product, and I wouldn't be surprised if Corel made the same move this week. I predict that Linux will continue its growth in the corporate market, but as an enabling technology that works in conjunction with other key components. For example: Linux is a favorite for many companies running Web servers. But a key reason why Linux is used in this arena is the Apache Web server, and for most of these companies the ability to run Apache in a stable and secure environment is why Linux was chosen. If Apache had been developed and optimized originally for Windows NT, I am not so sure Linux would be as popular as it is today.
LINUX PURE PLAYS TO FACE DIFFICULTIES
Let's face it: if the end of 1999 was the peak for Linux pure plays, the end of 2000 was the zenith. Both VA Linux and Red Hat Software -- arguably the leading Linux pure plays to reach the stock market -- were chugging on all cylinders at the end of 1999, only to see their stock prices continually fall through the end of 2000. A score of other companies, including TurboLinux, Linuxcare, and Lineo, abandoned plans to go public in face of a skeptical stock market.
More ominously, there seems to be little on the horizon that would lead these stock upwards -- at least according to many analysts that cover the Linux stock sector. Anyone familiar with the Linux world knows that one of the eternal debates is how companies will make money selling something that's given away for free. Yes, it can be done, but value needs to be added. (Water is the most plentiful substance on the planet, and somehow or another Evian convinces folks to pay extra for its mineral water.) Red Hat Software and VA Linux are both attempting to add this value by focusing on the enterprise, but enterprise sales are really difficult for newcomers.
LINUX TO MAKE GAINS IN THE ENTERPRISE
However, for those companies who are already established in the enterprise, Linux is a way to add some value at a time when margins are tightening and budgets are decreasing. IBM, Dell, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard have all embraced Linux as an enabling technology for their clients. By enabling technology, I mean that Linux is a base technology that makes other things possible, such as scalable Web serving or clustering. Want to get new life from that old mainframe? Install Linux as an OS and create 2,000 Linux machines on one box. Want a clustering technology? Then pony up for a Linux cluster. In these cases -- and many more -- sales are made because of a specifically technology feature that Linux can deliver at a more cost-effective basis. Let's face it: It's cheaper for an IBM to push Linux than to maintain a large staff of AIX coders. But IBM's customers are not using Linux because it's a magic technology, and what many Linux-oriented firms need to realize is that Linux's strength and marketability lies in this enabling capability.....
LINUX ON THE DESKTOP: NOT QUITE THERE YET
...and not in the pure end product, which is why Linux faces some spectacular challenges on the desktop. By and large, computer users are not going to convert from Windows to Linux because it's better OS (and it is), but they will be switch to Linux because it offers capabilities that makes their jobs go smoother. As of right now, there's not the application base that would compel users to switch from Windows to Linux: there is no broadbased application field where the Linux offerings are as good as or better than their Windows counterparts.
So there you have it: my picks for 2001. All in all, I think it will be a good year for Linux technology, which you'll see it adopted by more and more corporations in a variety of uses. But I don't foresee a huge year for Linux in terms of revenues for specific products.