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The Great Unix Flaw

The best example I know of to illustrate that the Linux model is a profoundly different approach to building OSes is to look at what many people are convinced is the ultimate outcome of this OS effort, namely that Linux will balkanize the same way all the Unixes have. There are apparently thirty different, largely incompatible, versions of the Unix OS available today.

But the forces that drive the various Unixes apart are working to unify the various Linuxes.

The primary difference between Unix and Linux is not the kernel, or the Apache server, or any other set of features. The primary difference between the two is that Unix is just another proprietary binary-only or IP-based OS. The problem with a proprietary binary-only OS that is available from multiple suppliers is that those suppliers have short-term marketing pressures to keep whatever innovations they make to the OS to themselves for the benefit of their customers exclusively. Over time these ``proprietary innovations'' to each version of the Unix OS cause the various Unixes to differ substantially from each other. This occurs when the other vendors do not have access to the source code of the innovation and the license the Unix vendors use prohibit the use of that innovation even if everyone else involved in Unix wanted to use the same innovation.

In Linux the pressures are the reverse. If one Linux supplier adopts an innovation that becomes popular in the market, the other Linux vendors will immediately adopt that innovation. This is because they have access to the source code of that innovation and it comes under a license that allows them to use it.

An example of how this works is the very example that all the Linux skeptics have been using to predict the downfall of the OS, namely the debate in 1997 between the older libc C libraries and the new glibc libraries. Red Hat adopted the newer glibc libraries for strong technical reasons. There were popular versions of Linux that stuck with the older libc libraries. The debate raged for all of six months. Yet as 1998 drew to a close all the popular Linux distributions had either switched or announced plans to switch to the newer, more stable, more secure, and higher performance glibc libraries.

That is part of the power of Open Source: it creates this kind of unifying pressure to conform to a common reference point -- in effect, an open standard -- and it removes the intellectual property barriers that would otherwise inhibit this convergence.

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Next: It's Your Choice Up: Giving It Away Previous: Unique Benefits

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Last updated: 1999-08-06