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Adobe pulls the plug on FrameMaker. Years ago, many of us were writing documents with a package called FrameMaker, produced by a company called Frame Technology. FrameMaker has a small but dedicated following; for certain sorts of tasks, such as the writing of large documents and books, it is one of the nicest tools available. The emacs-style key bindings were a nice feature as well. Frame Technology has long since been acquired by Adobe, but FrameMaker has remained one of the better Unix-based proprietary packages out there.

So many users were pleased to see that Adobe was finally making a FrameMaker beta available for Linux. Those users are less pleased now that Adobe has sent out this charming note saying that the beta period is over, the software is no longer available, and that beta copies will stop working at the end of the year. And, by the way, there will be no commercial release of FrameMaker to replace the beta. Linux users have one month to save their documents out in a different format.

Adobe is, presumably, pulling the plug because the results of the beta period indicated that the Linux market was not worth the trouble. That is surprising; FrameMaker has long been successful in the Unix world, and should have found a ready market on the Linux side. When surprises come along, it is worth considering for a moment what is going on.

In this case, part of the problem may have been, simply, lack of publicity. While vendors of other word processing systems have gone out of their way to insure that Linux users knew they were out there, Adobe has kept quiet about FrameMaker. No press releases, big color ads, or trade show booths. To hear about the FrameMaker beta, you just about had to be on one of Adobe's mailing lists or read LWN. Had Adobe worked harder to get the word out, it may well have been rewarded with more interest in the Linux port of its product.

Better publicity may well not have been enough, however. The sad fact is that people who want these proprietary packages on Linux have to be prepared to pay for them. Adobe evidently concluded that too few users had that willingness. Many Linux users will not be bothered if proprietary vendors decide to go elsewhere, of course, but let us remember that Linux is about choices. Proprietary packages are the preferred choice for many people, and their availability can only help to promote the use of Linux (and thus free software).

The other lesson to learn (again) from this episode, though, is that proprietary software has its price. Anybody who has invested in the use of FrameMaker on Linux is now out of luck. Those users must switch to another word processor or another operating system, or both. This is the sort of surprise that does not happen with free software. Development and support for an application can stop, but free software never simply picks up its marbles and goes home.

Linux users, of course, appreciate the benefits of free software and are busily making more of it. Could it be that the real reason for the withdrawal of FrameMaker is that we just don't need it? There is no free package which can replace Frame now, but it's less distant all the time. By the time the vendors of proprietary word processors figure out that they really do need to have a Linux product out there, they may find that they are too late and irrelevant.

Linux and viruses. Life may be hard for companies that are selling word processors for Linux, but they must have it easy compared to those who would sell us anti-virus systems. After all, the world has not yet been overwhelmed with reports of killer Linux viruses. Nonetheless, some people are trying.

Consider, for example, the folks at Kaspersky Labs. Their AVP for Linux Server package has been available for a while. It can perform some useful tasks, such as scanning for email-based viruses passing through to Windows victims. But it also claims to protect against native Linux viruses; as the product page says, "...new viruses for Linux appear every day."

That claim is clearly a bit over the top, as even Denis Zenkin, Kaspersky's head of corporate communications admitted to us. In fact, no "in the wild" Linux virus has ever been recorded by that company, leaving one to wonder exactly what AVP protects against. Kaspersky does maintain a list of known Linux viruses, which contains five entries. Again, none of them have ever been known to propagate and infect systems.

One can probably be justified in concluding that the threat is not all that great. After all, there are plenty of virus writers out there; there are also plenty of crackers looking for vulnerabilities in Linux systems. One would really expect to have seen at least one hostile Linux-based virus by now. Denis Zenkin disagrees; he told us:

I would add that as soon as this operating system will become a desktop standard or gain at least 50% of the Windows popularity there will be real 'wild' viruses... There is no absolutely secure environment and I believe as soon as Linux growing popularity will reach some limit malicious persons will turn their attention there.

Again, it is hard to believe that no malicious people have yet tried. For a lot of reasons, Linux systems are a difficult environment for viruses. A virus that runs on one system will have only limited access, and will have a hard time infecting files on even that one system. Propagation to another system requires getting over a whole new set of hurdles. Finally, free software writers are (usually) smart enough to avoid creating easy propagation mechanisms for viruses; in the case where they are not, others will close any holes quickly.

So Linux will probably never have the virus problems that certain other systems experience. That said, it would be foolish to assume that Linux is immune to such things. The Morris worm showed just how vulnerable we all can be, many years ago. Linux security holes do exist now. The drive to create bigger, fancier, component-oriented applications will certainly open up new vulnerabilities in unexpected ways. Sooner or later, somebody is going to figure out how to exploit a hole and create problems - at least for people who do not apply their security patches.

So, while we enjoy our relative immunity to viruses, it's probably wise not to be too smug. It's a hostile world out there.

Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:

  • Security: More modutils problems, BSD feedback, security advisories improving.
  • Kernel: Initializing to zero considered harmful; DProbes and LTT work together.
  • Distributions: Alpha support from SuSE, Red Hat, what about SPARC? Package management issues.
  • Development: Open Source Developer's Agreement, KDE League, Debian joins Gnome Foundation.
  • Commerce: Linus writes, shipping dates, and Europe votes down software patents.
  • Back page: Linux links, this week in Linux history, and letters to the editor
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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November 30, 2000


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