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Dark clouds and bright future

The growing success of the free Linux system in the server area brought about a seemingly never-ending saga: the legal battle between SCO and the Linux world. The story of SCO is a rather bizarre one. The vendor of a commercial Unix version for x86 PCs had been taken over by Linux distributor Caldera in 2000. Even before the turn of the millennium, Linux had started to nibble into the expensive commercial Unix variants' market share, and SCO's Unix business was deteriorating.

The combination of an established Unix vendor offering well-developed sales structures and an experienced Linux distributor seemed to provide everything it would take to conquer the Enterprise Linux market. However, reorganisations, losses, redundancies and a lack of clarity on how to marry the SCO OpenServer and Caldera OpenLinux product lines increasingly made Caldera fall behind competitors such as Red Hat, who consistently focused on Linux and open source code. Two years after the takeover, Caldera changed its name to SCO Group, and half a year later the company switched from being in the Linux business to being in the infringement business.

In spring 2003, the SCO Group sued IBM for $1 billion in damages. The core accusations were that IBM had allegedly promoted Linux and, in doing so, had not only stolen SCO's intellectual property but also helped the free operating system to become a serious Unix competitor in the first place. What followed were threats, alleged evidence, delays caused by a string of further new court motions and lawsuits against Linux users and distributors Red Hat and Novell – the dispute with Novell revolved around the copyright to Unix, which was claimed both by SCO and by Novell and formed the basis of all other SCO complaints. Last year, the relevant court decided that Novell holds the copyright to Unix, and it seems as if the curtain has finally dropped for the SCO Group, which went bankrupt long ago. But those declared dead live longer ...

SCO's legal campaign against Linux made things easy for Microsoft. First, the general defamation of Linux and open source as being the devil's work was replaced by arguments such as the alleged easier administration and lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of Windows. From 2004, Microsoft exploited the legal uncertainty caused by the SCO lawsuits and played the "higher legal security" card. The suggestion that Linux potentially infringed Microsoft patents caused so much insecurity in the market that, in 2005, IBM, NEC, Novell, Philips, Sony and Red Hat founded the Open Invention Network for counteracting patent attacks on Linux. Nevertheless, vendors who sell such devices such as Android smartphones do pay licence fees to Microsoft even today. At present, however, competition in the smartphone market generally tends to be more about patents, copyrights, lawsuits and competition complaints than it is about technology.

In 2006, Microsoft did acknowledge the importance of Linux in the IT market: a cooperation with Novell has turned Microsoft itself into a Linux distributor that very successfully offers its customers the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. Since 2009, Microsoft has also been among the companies who jointly develop the Linux kernel – and it recently even presented a twentieth anniversary congratulatory video.

The Linux Foundation, created by merging the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL) and the Free Standards Group, has focused on strengthening the competitive position of Linux since 2007. The Foundation, whose members include almost all companies that are related to Linux in some way, looks after the Linux Standard Base (LSB), pays core developers such as Linus Torvalds, and handles the protection of the Linux trademark. Ultimately, the Linux Foundation offers a neutral platform that allows even companies who are market competitors to cooperate – in a similar way to how they cooperate in kernel development.

Released only a few weeks ago, the current kernel version 3.0 is fully in line with the tradition of steady progress that was introduced with Linux 2.6: there are no more differences between it and its predecessor – Linux 2.6.39 – than there are between any other two consecutive 2.6.x versions. Linux 3.0 is just another name for the originally scheduled kernel version 2.6.40. The biggest change in Linux 3.0 is the new, two-digit numbering scheme: kernel version 3.0 will be followed by version 3.1.

And what about the world domination Linus Torvalds mentioned many years ago, when Linux was still an exotic hacker project? In the areas where Torvalds most likely expected success – on (desktop) PCs –, Linux continues to serve a niche market. The story is different at data centres: here, the free operating system has long been equally as important as Windows and the commercial Unix variants. In high performance computing, Linux clearly dominates the market, and neither can the former PC Unix be avoided on the internet – from Google and eBay to Facebook – and in cloud environments. With Android, Linux is positioned well in the thriving smartphone and tablet market.

Linux has made popular the idea that interested parties can use an open process to jointly develop software; and it has proved that this approach doesn't just work, but that it even offers tangible advantages when used for such huge projects as the Linux kernel. A major proportion of the open source software boom that has existed since the turn of the millennium is probably down to the free operating system's success.

Its flexibility will allow Linux to adapt to new developments that will further change the IT world in the coming years. To quote Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, who recently expressed it this way when talking about the twentieth anniversary at LinuxCon: "The power we provide is what we enable them to do with the technology". With this in mind: here's to the next twenty years.

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