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Born free: The debate on taming Linux

Developers of the freely distributed operating system must find the right balance between a single Linux version and rampant incompatibility.

SAN JOSE, California--Linux developers must find the right balance between a world with a single version of the operating system and a world filled with numerous incompatible versions, industry observers say.

Finding that balance between uniformity and creativity is the task undertaken by Daniel Quinlan, chairman of the Linux Standard Base. Linux fragmentation hasn't happened, but there are dangers from actual splintering or just the perception that such splintering is taking place, Quinlan said today at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here.

"It's a growing concern, and it can only get worse as time goes on" as more companies offer Linux software and more companies distribute the operating system itself, he said.

However, one of the strengths of Linux--its flexibility--also could become a weakness, said International Data Corporation analyst Jean Bozman. The open source nature of Linux, in which anyone is free to modify its original programming instructions, means Linux can be customized for different uses. But this customization means that Linux distributors are coming up with different varieties of the operating system.

In the future, Linux developers will have to make sure they continue what has been a good job so far of reintegrating changes that different programmers offer. That will be more difficult, though, as more and more programmers and companies delve into the Linux realm.

Database seller Sybase, however, wasn't deterred by the different flavors of Linux. "To us, they all seem the same. It really seems to be one version to us," said Jim Griffin, senior marketing manager at Sybase.

However, Sybase tests its products only with the Red Hat version of Linux and distributes it only with Linux from Red Hat and Caldera Systems.

For his part, Caldera CEO Ransom Love believes setting some standards needn't stifle Linux. "Standards are not in the way of innovation and creativity," he told CNET today.

Love is a wholehearted endorser of the Linux Standard Base, which aims to guarantee a similarity in core Linux areas such as filenames and basic functionality.

Quinlan emphasized, though, that too much uniformity is a bad thing. "We don't want to go where we make all Linux the same," he said. Even with basic similarity, Linux distributors are free to add features that distinguish their products, such as Pacific Hi-Tech's support for Asian languages, Caldera's attention to stability to appeal to commercial customers, and Red Hat's partnerships with several commercial companies.

Supporting Linux standards will benefit Linux distributors by helping the overall Linux market to grow, so Linux distributors don't have to worry as much about fragmenting the operating system to differentiate their versions to steal market share from each other, Quinlan said.

But the concept of standards clearly rankles some. Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and GNU, said people can set standards as much as they want, but GNU will go on using whatever software it chooses.

The biggest issue Linux has faced in fragmentation is the problem of choosing which version of critical supporting software called a "library" comes with the operating system.

With two major different libraries, and with different versions of each of those libraries, software vendors considering whether to offer Linux versions face a daunting task. "Application vendors have to test on every single one if they want to make sure every single one runs," Quinlan said.

Cliff Miller, chief executive of Pacific Hi-Tech, said the split between the two Linux libraries is significant. "We need to admit that and we need to work together," he said.

Whither the GUI?
Another Linux uniformity issue cropping up is which graphical user interface (GUI) to use, an important consideration as developers try to give Linux a friendlier, less technical appearance to make Linux more palatable to a mainstream audience.

Two prevailing solutions to the GUI problem are Gnome and K Desktop Environment, or KDE. While KDE was out the door earlier, Gnome just has reached version 1.0 and has licensing terms that make it better suited to the open source community, its backers said today.