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Can Linux Help Both Haves and Havenots?

Linux For All Worlds

  • May 31, 2004
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

How does Linux help IT companies make money, while at the same facilitating computer access among the world's "havenots"? In a special session at the CeBIT America, sponsored by the Business Council for the United Nations, representatives from IBM, Red Hat, Oracle and other organizations explored some manifestations of the paradoxical role played by Linux in today's global economy.

"We're in this for the money," said IBM's Sam Docknevich, echoing an admission frequently made by others during the roundtable discussion.

According to Docknevich, who is IBM's Linux and grid services executive, Americas, the profit motive serves the best explanation for why IBM has established Linux centers for customers worldwide, and has invested heavily in two leading Linux distributors, Red Hat and Novell/SuSE Linux. "(But) we've invested in both of them because we believe in choice and freedom," Docknevich added.

Jon "Maddog" Hall, moderator of the special session, touted "services" as the way for IT firms to prosper from Linux.

According to Hall, who heads up Linux International, "services" are about a lot more than burger-flipping, even though many people still associate the word mostly with low-paying, menial work. Doctors, lawyers, and IT consultants are all service providers, too, he suggested.

"Open source" doesn't necessarily mean that users get everything for free, the panelists agreed. Quite often, vendors will give away software, while charging for professional services.

"Everything we do (at Red Hat) is about 'open source.' It's really in the blood of our company." said Paul Cormier, executive VP for engineering at Red Hat.

The term "open source," though, pertains not just to "the bits," but also to "the process," according to Cormier. "('The process') is about the services needed to keep the bits functioning."

Cormier also said he wants to dismiss stereotypes anybody might hold that all Red Hat practitioners are "blue-haired kids."

Wim Coekaerts, Oracle's director of Linux engineering, pointed to another way in which Linux helps vendors to make money. Proprietary software companies, including Oracle, typically need to sell their software. "We have to keep our shareholders happy," he acknowledged. However, by combining proprietary software with an underlying open source operating environment, vendors can effectively drive down total system pricing, Coekaerts indicated.

Yet Coekaerts also suggested that small companies are often in particular need of professional Linux services. He told the sad tale of one small firm, which somehow managed to "lose all of its source code, after going 'open source.'"

Companies without inhouse expertise in open source and Linux "don't want to go out there alone," Coekaerts maintained. Organizations should also make sure that any improvements they make to open source code get funneled back into the open source community, he recommended.

Open source, though, isn't for everyone, according to Hall. If a company -- or a country -- is already using Windows without any problems, it might be better off sticking with Windows, he implied. Linux, on the other hand, often works best for entirely new implementations.

In the interests of international standardization, every major Linux distribution has now gained Linux Standard Base (LSB) certification, said another panelist, Scott McNeil, consultant and former executive director at the Free Standards Group. The standardization group is now looking at submitting LSB for ISO certification by next year, he said.

Although panelists stood unabashed about their profit motives, they also talked about how the Linux OS is now starting to benefit traditionally 'havenot' nations.

According to Hall, Linux is just on the verge of gaining the leading OS market share in both China and India.

According to Docknevich, IBM's customers include organizations in China, India, Russia, and Brazil, for example. Russia is deploying Linux at 50,000 schools, and China is about to roll out Linux at 12,000 post offices.

Red Hat's Cormier noted that Linux is also particularly strong in Eastern Europe, an area of the world that was "shut off from Microsoft" for many years.

Oracle, for its part, is active in the Chinese market through an investment in Red Flag Linux, Coekaerts said.

Vinay Deshpande, chairman and CEO of Encore Software, described Simputer, a project to provide computer access to the rural poor by providing them with Linux-based PDAs.

The Simputer was specifically designed for the areas where it is used, said Deshpande, who is also a trustee of the Simputer Trust.

Instead of rechargeable batteries, for example, Simputer uses AA batteries. Although electricity still isn't present in many parts of the world, AA batteries can typically be purchased in local stores almost anywhere.

The Simputer project also considered AAA batteries, he said. AA batteries, though, turned out to be more prevalent, as well as cheaper, than their AAA counterparts.

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