Year in Review: Turbulence, troubles and triumph in OS market

It's been a year of contrasts for operating system vendors.

It’s been a year of contrasts for operating system vendors.

Linux companies announced a slew of new Linux releases. Red Hat started the year by releasing Red Hat Linux 8.1, quickly followed it with Red Hat Linux 9.0, and then dismayed some users by dropping its consumer line altogether. The company encouraged users who wanted a supported Red Hat distribution to pony up $US179 or more for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, a distro that sits comfortably behind the bleeding edge and aims for production stability rather than the latest kernel or application features.

The consumer line was replaced by a Red Hat-sponsored “community” distribution, Fedora Core. Core 1.0 was greeted with mixed reviews when it debuted in November.

Red Hat refugees seem most likely to switch to another distro that uses the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM), such as SuSE or Mandrake. Mandrake struggled to find a viable business model and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January, but managed to release version 9.1 in March and 9.2 in October. Some Mandrake users tried to engineer a community takeover of the company, but MandrakeSoft CEO François Bancilhon said the company was making money and would aim to exit Chapter 11 status before the end of the year.

SuSE had a better year. Reviewers generally praised SuSE 8.2, released in March, and SuSE 9.0, released in November. The 9.0 rollout was quickly followed by the news that Novell would buy SuSE. Observers speculated what it all meant: Novell had also bought desktop Linux developer Ximian in August, and was involved in a spat with SCO over Unix rights.

SuSE was also the foundation of a brand new Linux distribution from an unlikely vendor: Sun Microsystems. The Java Desktop System has a “1.0” feel about it, but it represents a new effort by Sun to challenge Microsoft on the desktop. The final version is due in December; expect Sun to make a concentrated sales effort in the new year.

Meantime, Debian, a popular non-RPM distro, saw only one update to its stable release, Debian 3.0r2.

As the year drew to a close, Linus Torvalds handed over his last test version of the 2.6 kernel to the maintainer, Andrew Morton. Distributions based on the 2.6 kernel, which includes more "big iron" features, are likely to emerge early in 2004.

Whew — what a year for Linux. Factor in SCO’s legal attacks, and it’s been a turbulent 12 months. In comparison, BSD development proceeded without fanfare. FreeBSD welcomed the new year by releasing FreeBSD 5.0 in January, including support for Firewire and Bluetooth and a number of enterprise features. Development of the stable 4.x branch continued; 4.8 was released in April and 4.9 in October. FreeBSD 5.2 was expected before the end of the year.

In August FreeBSD gained a native, Sun-licensed Java JDK, removing one of the obstacles to FreeBSD adoption in companies.

OpenBSD 3.3 was released in May, featuring a non-executable stack and granular permissions in memory on supported architectures. As usual, OpenBSD was a constant and controversial topic on security-related mailing lists and websites. OpenBSD 3.4 followed in November.

NetBSD announced only one formal bug-fix release, 1.6.1, but continued to add new compatibility features and support for more architectures. A newcomer, DragonFly BSD, split from FreeBSD and anointed its own 1.0 branch in November.

While open source developers flung out new releases at such a dizzying speed, Microsoft’s OS releases were limited to security fixes and a developer’s preview. A fourth service pack for Windows 2000 was released in June, but most updates fixed stability or security glitches. By the end of November the company had released 51 security bulletins for its operating systems and applications.

In response to concerns about security, Microsoft released Windows Server 2003 in March. Server 2003 is the first product of Microsoft’s Trusted Computing initiative, and shipped with most default services disabled and a new version of the IIS web server. Reviewers liked the changes, although they noted that Server 2003 offers a similar user experience to Windows XP. Even so, the lack of new workstation releases led to some bleeding-edge users running Windows Server 2003 on their desktops and even laptops. It’s apparently a pretty good desktop OS.

June to September were not good months for Windows users. The Blaster and SoBig.F worms saturated networks and mailboxes. In response, Microsoft encouraged users to patch their machines and ISPs experimented with disabling the network ports used by Blaster.

Blaster targeted the Windows Update website, but Microsoft was able to reconfigure its systems to avoid the pending DOS attack. SoBig.F contained its own expiration date, July 14, and was expected to be followed by another, nastier worm, which hasn’t yet eventuated.

Microsoft says the next service packs for Windows 2000 and Windows XP will be less vulnerable to malware like Sobig and Blaster, but they’re not expected until May next year.

In October Microsoft welcomed 7000 developers to its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, where the technology underlying the next version of Windows was introduced. Codenamed Longhorn, the next major Windows release will include Avalon, a vector-based screen rendering technology; WinFS, an indexed file service sitting on top of the NTFS file system; and Indigo, which combines all Longhorn’s communication technologies. Developers were largely positive, although Longhorn isn’t expected until 2006.

Also restrained in their announcements were the commercial Unix vendors. In February SCO updated OpenServer to 5.0.7, before switching attention to supposed IP transgressions by Linux developers and IBM. In May, Sun shipped Solaris 9 and HP released HP-UX 11i v2 for Itanium.

The best-received, shipping operating system of 2003 was probably Apple’s release of Mac OS X 10.4, better known by its code name, Panther. Many of Panther’s improvements are evolutionary — it’s faster than its predecessor and includes improvements to networking and uses FreeBSD 5 tools and libraries, for example — but it also has some genuine interface innovations, such as Expose, a utility that shrinks and highlights windows to aid navigation. Reviewers were rather impressed.

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