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Oracle has announced that it will ship and support a Linux distribution. This came at the Internet World conference last week. Details are still scarce; they have said, though, that they would likely "license" one of the existing distributions, rather than create their own. There is still nothing about this announcement on Oracle's web site; about the only real press coverage seems to be this Computing (UK) story.

This is the sort of surprising news that, in retrospect, is not surprising at all. The CEO of Oracle, Larry Ellison, has had a strong anti-Microsoft agenda for some time. Thus, Oracle's agenda is anti-Microsoft. They have not been pleased to watch the business world slip away from the Unix servers that have traditionally hosted Oracle's databases and toward Wintel-based machines. They have seen what happens to other companies when Microsoft decides to head into their turf: think of all the add-on software companies that don't exist any more. Microsoft is moving into the database world. Oracle is not pleased.

So along comes a platform that looks like it could give Microsoft some real grief. Along come other big companies, like Intel, supporting the development of this system. Of course Oracle will get behind it, once they catch on. The only surprising thing is that it took them so long.

So is this a good thing? Though they have not said so, one would hope that Oracle's plan would include devoting some resources toward Linux development. That should help us all. An Oracle-backed distribution will, of course, have a great deal of credibility in high corporate circles where such things matter. That means more Linux users, and, along with that, more Linux developers. And it means that more of you will be working on Linux in your cubicles. These are good things.

However, it is worth keeping in mind that Oracle is pursuing its own agenda here; it is doubtful that Oracle is much attached to the idea of Linux itself. Linux is being set up as Oracle's soldier in a battle of large companies. Linux, perhaps, did kind of volunteer for the job, but it is a scary one to say the least. Microsoft is distracted by the U.S. Department of Justice at the moment, but that will not last forever. Expect to see the heavy artillery come out at some point.

And remember the old saying from somewhere, paraphrased here: regardless of who wins the battle of the elephants, the grass tends to suffer.

Here's a (purely fictional) scenario to consider: suppose a large company with interests in the Linux support business at some point decides that it wants a change made to the kernel that is not acceptable to Linus. SYSV streams, say. Big companies can be pretty imperious in their demands. Linus is unlikely to back down in such a situation, even after the big company's bigwigs have gone to the Transmeta bigwigs to get some pressure applied. What could come of this? Linus gets disgusted and bails out. Or this company splits off its own kernel - taking some developers with it - which becomes the only "supported" one. Linux would probably survive such stresses, but few people would be pleased.

Again, the above is pure fiction; there is no reason to believe that Oracle would behave in this way. But the fact is that Linux is being dragged into other peoples' battles, and the combatants may not always have the best interests of Linux and its users in mind.

(Those interested in a highly optimistic analysis of what Oracle's moves mean for Linux should see Eric Raymond's note, which appears in the Letters to the Editor section in this week's back page.)

It's official: Microsoft is using Linux as an example showing that they do not have an operating system monopoly. See this press release, down at the bottom:

"Market entry costs are very low and profit opportunities vast in software platform technology, leading to constant efforts to unseat the incumbent leader (witness the advance of Linux, a new version of UNIX developed by a single individual)."
It was quite the surprise to see that Linux has been "developed by a single individual." One wonders what all those other folks have been doing.

See also Dwight Johnson's essay in LinuxToday for a well-written, in-depth treatment of Microsoft's claims.

For anyone that might have missed the announcement, Larry Wall has won the first annual Free Software Foundation award.

The Linux Weekly's News roving editor, Liz Coolbaugh, will be at the upcoming festivities at the Atlanta Linux Showcase next week. Keep an eye out for her; she's looking forward to meeting many of you there.

October 15, 1998



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