By Steve Hamm In its campaign to discredit Linux, the main rival to its Windows operating system, Microsoft (MSFT) once published a witty print advertisement in Germany that showed four penguins standing in a row. One looked normal, one had jackrabbit ears, the next had a frog's head and antlers, and the last had the ears of a pig and an elephant's trunk. Microsoft's point: Linux, with its penguin mascot, comes in several varieties. The tagline said: "An open operating system has not only advantages."
Microsoft's ad wasn't just clever: It pointed out a potentially serious problem with Linux. One of the attractions of the open-source operating system is that unlike with Unix, which splintered into a dozen incompatible varieties, people writing applications for Linux are supposed to be able to write them once and have them run on any Linux version. That helps make it an effective alternative to Windows.
BROAD AGREEMENT. Already, however, applications written to run on the most popular commercial Linux package, Red Hat Linux, have to be tweaked slightly to run on Novell SuSe Linux or other less-popular versions. As the makers of these products add more capabilities around the basic program, the potential for more serious incompatibilities looms.
Fortunately for Linux fans, help is on the way. On Sept. 13, the Free Standards Group, a nonprofit organization set up to assure compatibility between Linux versions, released a technology standard called Linux Standard Base 2.0 -- a recipe to assure that applications will run on any version.
All of the dozens of Linux variations worldwide have agreed to comply with the standard, as have the large tech companies that back Linux, including Intel (INTC), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), AMD (AMD), and IBM (IBM). "This goes a long way toward assuring end-user organizations that they'll have interoperable, compatible products from all of the suppliers," says analyst Dan Kusnetzky at market researcher IDC.
"A TRUE OPEN ALTERNATIVE." This move could open up a new avenue for Linux. Up until now, it has been used primarily as an operating system for Web sites, search engines, e-mail systems, and complex number-crunching jobs. It has just a foothold in the realm of running corporate applications -- everything from accounting and human-resources management to supply-chain and customer-relationship management.
Most of the major creators of corporate applications made code changes in their products to operate on Red Hat and Novell SuSe, but few had gone the extra step of doing so for lesser versions -- particularly those now emerging as players in places like China and India. Meanwhile, many smaller applications makers hadn't bothered to adapt their software to run on any versions of Linux. "If the Linux industry can unite and pull this off, there's a real shot at a true open alternative to Microsoft," says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Free Standards Group.
Will the application makers go for it en masse? It's too soon to tell. None of them had signed on to an earlier version of the standard -- principally because it didn't support C++, the programming language used to write most commercial applications. The new version remedies that, so it's more compelling.
ANOTHER PLUS. "This would make life easier. Anything that allows us to move to the different flavors more easily is a good thing," says Jeremy Burton, senior vice-president for marketing at Veritas Software (VRTS), a leading seller of storage-management software that has adapted all of its products to run on Linux.
Even if many application makers adopt the standard, it's no assurance that Linux will quickly gain ground on Windows. But without it, Linux growth might have been stunted. And with it, corporate tech purchasers have one more reason to like Linux. In this long battle over the future of computing, every bit counts. Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York