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Diving through the cloud

These confusions are compounded by the common wisdom that the desktop is moving away from reliance on the static PC on the desktop of every worker. Applications are accessed through the cloud, and the capacity of the local hardware becomes less important – the local device can be a thin client, a full blown workstation or a smart phone.

In this circumstance the strength of Linux is in the server space, on mobile devices, smart phones, touch screen devices and netbooks, rather than on the traditional desktop – and a commercial Linux desktop vendor has to take this into account, which is why Ubuntu is looking at Unity as an interface for every device.

This is the context behind the famous remark of Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat, that "the concept of a desktop is kind of ridiculous in this day and age."

"I'd rather think about skating to where the puck is going to be," he is reported to have said, "than where it is now."

Android, MeeGo, webOS But even in the mobile space, the Linux market is splintered and offers no coherence. Android is sponsored by Google, based on the Linux kernel, and has been a runaway success. MeeGo is sponsored by Intel. WebOS is sponsored by HP. Each is very different to the others.

That's the way the money goes

Finding a business model for delivering free software on a large scale isn't straightforward. Free software was never about making money, and is unlikely to be the making of software billionaires. The classic success stories are Red Hat and JBoss. For these companies the revenue streams come not from selling the software, but from selling training, services and support.

Red Hat Red Hat's business model worked because a number of hardware companies, primarily IBM and HP, decided that the time was right for Linux on the server and made a deliberate choice to go with existing distributions rather than developing their own. Red Hat was in the right place at the right time, and had the imagination to radically transform its business model to fit the circumstances.

JBoss, now a subsidiary of Red Hat, built its revenue model on a similar strategy, and proved that subscription, installation, training, support, upgrades and maintenance can provide realistic opportunities for creating income streams for a product that is at least the equal of, and arguably superior to, many of its rivals.

Business doesn't care

This works well for the backroom server or for complex middleware solutions, but pulling off the same trick for desktop Linux, without a leg up from helpful OEMs, looks less easy. Arguably, the first commercial enterprise to try to sell Linux on the desktop was Caldera, which later morphed into SCO.

Caldera In many ways Caldera was an object lesson in how not to run an open source company. From the beginning, Caldera was not like other Linux distributions. The first official release included the proprietary 'Looking Glass' or Network Desktop, which didn't go down well with the community. And neither did Caldera's adoption of the 'OpenLinux' moniker which seemed to infer that OpenLinux was more open than other versions of GNU/Linux, which it wasn't.

Such niggles confounded Caldera's relationship with the community from the beginning. Ransom Love, Caldera's CEO, once engaged in a famous spat with Richard Stallman, after he announced that Caldera would be dropping the GPL because it was 'holding back' its business. "We add value to Linux, so it can become successful", he claimed. "We integrate Linux in back office systems and we do all the marketing that's necessary. Did Richard Stallman ever invest $100 million (>£50 million) in Linux? We did."

Stallman's curt response was to say that "Caldera's not a free software company at all. They are just a parasite."

Love told Glyn Moody (in Rebel Code): "We did get a lot of criticism, and people were concerned then that Caldera was trying to take Linux proprietary. And they couldn't be more wrong. Because we never had an intention. Never have. Never will."

According to Moody, Caldera always had an "unhappy knack of spotting the key trends ahead of everyone and never being able to capitalize on them" – examples being Caldera's negotiation of a port of Adabas to Linux (the first proprietary database software available for Linux), and a notoriously misjudged multi-million dollar agreement with Netscape, which was first announced on 15 December 1997.

Caldera made an "exclusive agreement to provide Netscape core server and client software to the Linux community", with rights to license Netscape software "to other Linux providers". Weeks later, Netscape released the client software for free, and gave the source code away to the developer community, severely undermining the 'exclusive' agreement with Caldera.

Ultimately, Caldera failed to cash in on the Linux boom because it failed to form partnerships with OEMs and the community. The SCO litigation, which tried "to take Linux proprietary", was the final death knell.

Next: The perfect word

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