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Linux's Brave New World

Key players in the open-source world say 2004 will see growing acceptance of the operating system on the desktop, adoption of the latest kernel version, and more accountability for Linux-based products.

The new year will be rife with growing acceptance of Linux on the desktop, adoption of the latest kernel version, and more clear accountability for Linux-based products. That was the message echoed Wednesday at LinuxWorld by a number of major players in the open-source market.

Linux is moving to the client world, which is quickly growing beyond the basic PC interface to include cell phones, medical devices, and even automobiles, said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBM's VP of technology and strategy. "Linux is unique for its ability to work across every architecture" from servers to PCs, he added

Sun Microsystems is banking heavily on the success of its Java Desktop System, which has been shipping since December, and Java-based developers' tools running on Linux. Sun sees the market as looking for an alternative to migrating from Windows 95 or 98 to Windows XP. "The desktop is a stepping stone in Sun's overall network-computing strategy," said Simon Phipps, Sun's chief technology evangelist.

Neil Stein has been playing with the newest Linux kernel on his home system, but it'll be a while before version 2.6 is ready for the business world. "It needs to have one of the major distributors shipping it before it can be sanctioned for work," says Stein, lead infrastructure manager at pharmaceuticals giant Merck & Co., which is running its Web infrastructure on Linux.

The newest version of the Linux kernel improves Linux's scalability. While the previous kernel version ran on servers with as many as eight processors, version 2.6 will run on 16-way servers, according to Wladawsky-Berger. "It pushes Linux into the hard-core enterprise sector," he said.

Although the version of the kernel does make a difference, many Linux vendors tend to follow the lead of Linux distributors such as Red Hat Inc. and SuSE Linux. "We support the distribution rather than the kernel," says Ranajit Nevatia, Veritas Software's director of Linux strategy.

SCO Group's lawsuit against IBM has brought the issue of liability into focus for the Linux community. Until recently, Linux vendors haven't been asked to offer indemnification for their products. Now, they need to explain more clearly how they will protect customers against claims of intellectual property infringement. Novell chairman and CEO Jack Messman said during his LinuxWorld keynote on Wednesday that he believes customers won't continue to adopt open-source code if vendors don't offer accountability for their products.

IBM's position is a bit more measured. "Every time there's been a major disruptive technological innovation, along with all of the positive, people come out of the woodwork looking to get their little piece of it," Wladawsky-Berger said. He cites lawsuits filed years ago against inventors of such disparate technologies as the automobile, light bulb, and radio as examples. "One way or another, they get settled. People tend to remember people such as Ford and Edison as heroes, unlike the people who sued them."

Ultimately, despite SCO Group's promise to file a lawsuit against a major Linux user, intellectual-property liability is a matter for vendors to settle among themselves, Wladawsky-Berger said, adding that, "It's unusual for a vendor to threaten users, but this too shall pass."

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