"We will figure out a way that we will have a single, more generic distribution that we will all use," said Paul Thomas, who in June was named chief executive of TurboLinux.
"The world doesn't need 150" versions of Linux, he said Wednesday at a W.R. Hambrecht conference for open-source software. "Consolidation will take place."
Although standardization seems to fly in the face of the Linux ethos, convergence in the end is a practical necessity. Corporate customers detest getting bogged down in technical incompatibilities and battles over standards and will curb adoption of a new technology until these issues are resolved.
The splintering of Unix into multiple hardware-specific "flavors," a quagmire that began years ago, hindered its adoption and in the long run may have enhanced the appeal of Microsoft's Windows NT operating system. Each server maker at one time offered its own proprietary version of Unix, intended to lock-in hardware buyers. Microsoft's Windows, in contrast, can run on hardware from multiple makers.
In addition, most Linux companies, in contrast to how Unix was promoted, don't plan on generating the bulk of their revenue from hardware tweaked to run a particular Unix variant. Instead, revenue will come from services.
"You can't make money selling just an operating system," Thomas said. "The value is above the operating system, in services and applications."
So far, the four dominant versions of Linux--Red Hat, TurboLinux, SuSE and Caldera Systems--share many features. They use the same core, or kernel, the same display software, and the same software update feature developed by Red Hat. But other parts differ, such as the user interface and the locations where files are placed.
Like TurboLinux, the other major companies see their future in relieving companies of computer management burdens. Red Hat recently unveiled a subscription service in which customers or administrators may pay for software updates. TurboLinux, Linuxcare and Caldera plan similar services.
Thomas said in an interview that the Linux Standard Base will provide the route with which Linux versions will converge.
Caldera, long a backer of the Linux Standard Base, voiced support for standardization during the conference. The impetus for standardization is to make sure companies selling databases, e-commerce programs or other software can have an easier time making sure software is certified to work with Linux, he said.
"It's vital that they have consistency from all the Linux products from all the Linux vendors," said Caldera chief technology officer Drew Spencer. "We see that as being absolutely mandatory." Otherwise, "Linux will fragment" into different, incompatible versions, he said.
However, Red Hat, the leading Linux seller, can afford to be more relaxed about standardization. Large companies such as IBM and Oracle are careful to work with several Linux sellers, but smaller companies make sure their software or hardware works with Red Hat first.
Thomas also predicted that the Linux community would mature and therefore become more palatable to large corporations.
"For a long time, Linux was dominated by hackers and somewhat of a less organized group. The result is a slowdown in innovation and a reluctance in enterprises to accept this solution," he said. "This has to grow up."
Providing a rare glimpse into the finances of the company, which has yet to go public, Thomas said TurboLinux had revenue of $5 million in 1999.