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United we stand–and fall?

UnitedLinux could be a key unifying force.

Linux has always been about freedom of choice. You can use Linux, an open-source operating system, in place of closed and ever more costly software from such vendors as Microsoft. With Linux, you can even choose your operating-system vendor from the likes of Red Hat, SuSE, Debian, TurboLinux, and a host of others.

Sometimes the same freedom of choice that is so powerful also makes matters worse. Without a single Linux definition, you’re left with varying versions of Linux. This makes Linux harder to administer, especially for larger organizations. An effort called the Linux Standard Base helps define standards for Linux distributions, but it doesn’t go far enough.

That’s where UnitedLinux fits in. Designed to unify Linux distributions, UnitedLinux also stands on the commercial goals of its founding members, especially the goal to fight off Linux leader Red Hat.

Formed by four second-tier Linux vendors, Caldera, Conectiva, SuSE, and TurboLinux, UnitedLinux pools resources to create a new Linux distribution that will form the base for each company’s offerings.

But even before UnitedLinux released the first beta version of this new distribution, signs of trouble appeared. SuSE, the largest Linux distributor in Europe, has been struggling in the United States, despite having an absolutely great product and cheaper prices than Red Hat. (All the UnitedLinux vendors are struggling to some extent, which is one of the reasons they joined together.) Caldera, with a long history of working with resellers, recently renamed itself The SCO Group just after the first UnitedLinux beta. SCO was a UNIX (not Linux) company that Caldera purchased in the days of a soaring stock market. SCO owns the UNIX trademark and the original AT & T and, later, Novell UNIX source code. The former Caldera plans to focus on these commercial UNIX products instead of Linux in an effort to increase revenues.

TurboLinux, leading in Asia, went so far as to get out of the Linux business entirely, selling its Linux product to Japanese firm Software Research Associates, known as SRA. SRA plans to continue the TurboLinux involvement in the UnitedLinux effort.

On top of all these troubles, UnitedLinux has some strange licensing provisions. Linux has come to mean free and open to many people. Yet, UnitedLinux plans some restrictions and special licenses to help improve revenues for its members.

That’s understandable. But it comes at a time when many companies are looking at Linux as an alternative to Microsoft’s increasingly restrictive licenses. This makes the UnitedLinux effort muddy the waters around Linux at best, and at worst may mean that the four vendors may be united, but they could end up going nowhere.

That would be a shame.

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