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Group seeks structure for Linux

The new coalition wants to propagate a minimum set of standards for the free OS--an effort that could rankle the Linux user community.

Linux originator Linus Torvalds's recent photo shoot for a Forbes magazine cover was just the latest in a surge of publicity on the man behind the booming Net-based software movement.

Now a new organization wants to propagate a minimum set of standards for the freely distributed operating system software--an effort that could rankle the Linux user community, which clings to the idea that software should be free to customize as each user sees fit.

The so-called Linux Standards Association (LSA) has set up shop on the Net, professing a mission to "bring business to Linux."

Linux was initially released in 1991 when Torvalds was a student at the University of Helsinki. It has since grown into a Net-based software phenomenon, with millions of users counted as converts and countless software additions submitted to various ad hoc Linux Web sites for use.

Part of the attraction to Linux is due to the fact that programmers can mold the software as they please, using the source code for the Unix-based derivative as a basis for free form customization. Others, like Red Hat Software and Caldera, have taken the Net-based buzz surrounding Linux and built commercial businesses.

But now the LSA believes it is time to rein in this creativity to a certain extent, so that independent software and hardware vendors will not have to worry about incompatibilities in the software.

"This diversity has, in large part, allowed Linux to develop into the powerful system currently available. Each developer has the complete freedom to develop a feature, improvement, or widget without the need to consider how it affects others," said the organization as part of a written mission statement posted on its Web site.

"The time has come, however, for the community to accept and adhere to a minimum standard for what constitutes the Linux operating system," the statement continued. "Failure to create, define, and promote such a brand standard will result in the commercial support for Linux falling to the side as [independent software and hardware vendors] realize that the costs of participating will exceed the benefit of sales."

The new organization essentially is trying to make the Linux operating system a more palatable alternative in the business world, a potentially huge niche for the software. Most businesses rely on commercially branded and supported operating systems for their desktop and server systems from the likes of Microsoft, Novell, IBM, and Sun Microsystems.

Linux may be gaining strength in corporate circles, due to its ever-growing installed base. Software developers Oracle, Informix, and Netscape Communications are among the technology giants that have recently pledged to develop software for the Linux operating system.

The LSA also has listed certain conditions for joining the group on its Web site that appear to be unpalatable for some. One rule of the standards organization gives the founding companies--little known in the Linux community--veto power over potential standards. Another attaches fees to inclusion in the body.

The LSA is encouraging members of the Linux community to sign on with the group. Right now, the standards effort boasts two charter members--Innovative Logic, an applications developer, and NC Laboratories--as well as one "regular member," according to information on the organization's Web site.

According to the LSA: "Much as Linux has been the cooperative effort of many dedicated users, the standard will be the result of the cooperation and mutual respect of the members of the LSA."

But the leader of the nascent standards effort has quickly found himself in the middle of a philosophical battle for the soul of the Linux community. In a posting on a site frequented by Linux developers, LSA chief Michael McLagan responded to a slew of messages protesting the LSA's particular efforts to standardize Linux.

"In my opinion, most of the posters in the discussion here should be ashamed of themselves," he wrote. "I read more than enough comments about how Linux is open source and free software and the like, only to be told to dry up and blow away. It got to the point of being hilarious."

The LSA represents only one attempt to negotiate a base set of standards for Linux. Debian GNU/Linux and Red Hat are jointly working on a Linux Compatibility Standards Project so that a specification exists for application developers.

Others think any standards for Linux will only contribute to the continued openness of the operating system.

"I think this is a very good thing and not at all antithetical to what Linux is about. By adhering to open standards, Linux can make itself a more attractive platform to [independent software vendors]," said Tracy Reed, a systems administrator and Linux devotee, in an email to CNET News.com.

"The standards being pursued leave Linux distributors plenty of ways in which to distinguish themselves and really only lay a set of common ground rules on which [independent software vendors] can depend when porting their software to the Linux environment," he added.

Reed, as well as others, hedged their support or dismissed the objectives of the LSA outright once it became clear that the organization would charge a fee for inclusion in the standards body. "Surely there must be a better way to determine who gets to vote than by charging a fee," Reed said in a subsequent email.

"Setting a Linux standard is (and should be) like herding cats. Not taking the nature of those cats into consideration will only make the job more impossible," chimed in a person named "Jedi," in a message.

Noted another Linux devotee in an email: "The leaders in our community are mostly self-appointed; they would not be there if the community was not satisfied."