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1/26/2007
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New Linux Foundation Must Be Part Lawyer, Part Peacemaker

The Linux Foundation faces challenges on the legal front, but also on nuts-and-bolts issues such as setting standards.

Linux backers are preparing for the next phase in the competition with Microsoft by adopting a model more closely resembling Microsoft's deep-pocketed protection of Windows.

The two most important Linux support groups, the Open Source Development Labs and the Free Standards Group, said last week they'll merge in February to form the Linux Foundation. It's an acknowledgement that Linux can't afford to divide its resources for funding, legal defense, and standards. "We will be a vendor-neutral organization capable of responding to competitors' attacks and FUD," says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the foundation and former head of the Free Standards Group.

Linus Torvalds, still on the job.

Torvalds, still on the job
Vendors didn't want to keep paying for two Linux advocates. OSDL was losing money; in 2004, it overspent its $8.2 million in member dues by $2.4 million. In December it laid off staff. The new foundation's sponsors include Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Novell, and Oracle, each paying $500,000. Advanced Micro Devices, Cisco Systems, and Sun Microsystems are among those companies paying $200,000; Red Hat, $20,000.

The Linux Foundation will continue to supply the Linux Standard Base, the unglamorous but necessary work of keeping major Linux distributions to an agreed-upon set of system functions, so that applications can run with different Linux versions. Standards fragmentation is one of the biggest risks facing Linux, contends Allen Brown, CEO of the Open Group, a consortium that advocates for open standards.

The foundation will employ Linus Torvalds, who worked for OSDL, managing the Linux kernel.

Keeping Linux Out Of Court
Legal protection will remain one of the new group's central missions. Three efforts will continue under the foundation: the Open Source As Prior Art project to defend against patent challenges; the Patent Commons, for companies to contribute patents to be used in defense of Linux; and the Linux Legal Defense Fund, launched by OSDL in 2004 with the promise of $10 million for Linux users and developers to fight litigation related to intellectual property. "Microsoft spends a lot of money protecting its Windows platform," Zemlin says. "We're going to do the same thing."

Linux's legal problems erupted in March 2003 when SCO Group took IBM to court, alleging that IBM contributed SCO-owned code to the Linux kernel. Related cases have fizzled, though SCO continues to press its claims. Novell isn't taking any chances, aligning with Microsoft in a pact that protects it from potential Microsoft lawsuits, which continue to hang over Linux users.

While OSDL embraced its legal defense mission, its financial problems likely came from a lack of enthusiasm for its other roles. Its initial purpose to promote and market Linux was accomplished long ago. With the Free Standards Group working on Linux standards, OSDL was left to coordinate long-term efforts such as desktop and carrier-grade Linux projects. Zemlin didn't commit to which projects the foundation will support, saying "most" will continue.

The foundation may find new issues to energize its flock. 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman sees a challenge ahead in maintaining the operating system's backward compatibility--a key technical requirement for businesses. "This is a prime example of where a single entity and set of standards are necessary," he wrote in a report last week.

The group has the key vendors behind it -- mostly. Red Hat's decision to join as a $20,000 "silver" partner, well below Novell, could just be cost consciousness -- or lack of enthusiasm, Lyman says. Missing completely is Canonical, the company behind the increasingly popular Ubuntu Linux. As the new patriarch, it'll be the Linux Foundation's task to ensure that everyone in this strange family gets along.

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