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Indemnification and Linux Insanity

By Rob Enderle
Sep 29, 2003 11:18 AM PT

Recently, a letter from the Linux community to SCO supposedly addressed the concerns SCO has created in the industry about open-source software.

Indemnification and Linux Insanity

However, the letter fails to accomplish its apparent goals and, in my opinion, actually increases SCO's short-term chances of successfully getting funding from large corporate Linux users. In fact, in reading the letter, I wondered whether it was actually written by someone being paid by SCO, which probably means I'm spending too much time with the open-source software folks and have begun to become as paranoid as they are about secret conspiracies.

I really doubt there is a conspiracy here, but it is hard to understand why the Linux community would feel the need to write a widely distributed letter that once again would showcase the risk. As I look at the companies mentioned in the letter -- and the implication that each one is apparently willing to go into litigation -- I can only wonder what kinds of conversations are suddenly going on between IT, marketing and legal departments in those firms.

My sense is that at least some of these IT groups are suddenly regretting using a product that might now represent -- because of this letter -- unplanned career risk.

Customer Indemnification

Shooting at an enemy while consistently hitting your supporters is never a very good method for achieving success. This tactic highlights one of my biggest concerns with the open-source software strategy: the inability to move against a threat strategically or in well-coordinated fashion.

In that regard, I am becoming increasingly convinced that while there are many very intelligent and measured people backing open source and Linux, the community also has become a home for techno-insanity. A case in point is the recent response to HP's indemnification of its Linux customers.

Basically, HP looked at its IP portfolio and determined it could, at virtually no cost, indemnify its customers to some degree against the risk that SCO represents -- to make the SCO claims a nonissue for the customers.

I don't know of any IT organization that aspires to spend its time and money in litigation. I'm one of those who feels strongly that no IT manager should buy any software product without some assurance that the company selling it will protect the rights he or she just bought.

But instead of indemnifying its customers, IBM has criticized HP for not going far enough, and some in the open-source community have even made accusations that HP is now in bed with SCO. Let's reset.

Microsoft's Product Set

Microsoft's vast product set is widely exposed. The net result is that Windows is more likely to be hit by the kinds of problems associated with intellectual property claims than Linux is. But until recently, Microsoft was the only company providing indemnification for its customers.

In my mind, this indemnification, if enforceable, makes Microsoft's platforms more secure against this kind of threat than Linux (as a platform) is -- with one exception. The exception is HP, which recently agreed to indemnify its Linux customers much as Microsoft does for its own customers. Now, if you buy from HP, the whole SCO thing is someone else's problem.

If you've been reading my columns, you've seen that I've continually argued that were I to do Linux I would only choose HP. The reason is that, out of all vendors, HP has solidly focused on the needs of the customers rather than on the war with SCO.

HP is the only entity moving strategically to mitigate the threat that SCO represents, and it is one of the few companies that can handle the services, hardware and software needed to deploy Linux with the most favorable balance of cost and benefits.

HP also is the only vendor in this class that offers AMD platforms and experience. AMD is, in my experience, often favored as more cost effective than Intel for Linux users. Moreover, on Intel Itanium (currently dominated by 64-bit Linux), HP is, as the codeveloper, preeminent.

IBM Source Problem

IBM, on the other hand, appears to be the source of much of the problem. It was IBM's dispute with SCO that bled over into an overall threat to the platform. IBM has done almost nothing to mitigate the threat and absolutely refuses to indemnify its customers, which, at the very least, adds credibility to SCO's arguments.

Now IBM is attacking HP's efforts. The letter that started off this column should have been written by IBM, which has both the resources and the experience to do it properly.

This situation reminds me of IBM's parentage of OS/2. With OS/2, the company stood firmly behind the product even years after it had pulled all resources and abandoned the platform's supporters, who were mostly recruited by IBM in the first place.

What many don't know is that IBM had actually developed native 32-bit Windows support for OS/2 but refused to release it because of the fear that developers wouldn't develop for OS/2 native code. The lack of third-party and IBM support was what eventually killed the product.

Earthquake Insurance

Individually, IBM employees maintain a very high ethical standard, but the company's corporate messages can't be trusted because these messages don't really represent the distributed will of the company. To see proof of this, the next time you go to an IBM location, take a look at what it uses to run its offices. You'll quickly see that it is not a company that believes in eating its own dog food.

Like Microsoft, IBM has a tendency to want to control the technologies in which it participates. With the amount of resources that the company brings to bear on each new situation, it is incredibly hard to tell the company to back off. With Unix and AIX, for example, IBM created the least standard of the Unix variants, and the company's largest contributions to Linux are the most likely to balkanize the platform.

Free software has never been a problem for IBM. Its operating systems started out being free, and it was that unfair competitive advantage that resulted in the U.S. consent decree that fostered Unix, Windows and eventually Linux. Today, for every "free" Notes seat that IBM gives away, the company still pulls in over US$650 of additional revenue.

Most of the other Linux distributions -- with the exception of those funded by the various governments -- don't have the resources to make indemnification believable. The situation is like buying earthquake insurance from a very small insurance firm that offers insurance for a lower rate but might not be around if there were ever a large earthquake.

Community Must Strategize

In the end, the Linux community must start thinking strategically and move against the real threat that SCO represents -- fear, uncertainty and doubt. The community must encourage more companies to indemnify customers and stop fertilizing SCO's efforts.

The community must make a commitment to operate strategically to benefit the decision-makers who support open-source software, rather than use these decision-makers as cannon fodder in the war against SCO.

There are thousands of hard-working people who are beginning to support open-source software and Linux. It would be great if the leaders of the movement put more effort into protecting these loyalists and less effort into inflaming avoidable religious fights.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a company founded on the concept of providing a unique perspective on personal technology products and trends.

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