It is interesting that critics of Linux tend to exaggerate the potential for Linux to fragment as an argument against the open-source operating system. They usually point to the number of unique Linux distributions as evidence, because there are occasional incompatibilities among them.
Regardless of the distribution you pick, all of the incompatibilities of which I am aware can be solved without switching distributions. But their point is still well-taken. Linux distributors need to agree upon a standard API, among other things.
Before I continue, let me dismiss the notion that, in comparison, Microsoft's Windows is not fragmented. There are plenty of incompatibilities among Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows NT. Microsoft warns its customers that Windows 2000 breaks applications that were running fine on Windows NT. Some software won't run on Windows NT 4.0 unless you apply the required number of service packs first. So Windows defenders have nothing to boast about when it comes to compatibility issues.
Anyway, let me return to the issue of multiple distributions. It occurred to me as I walked the aisles of LinuxWorld Expo in New York that the multitude of distributions is one very important reason Linux will flourish after Windows has faded into the land of legacy operating systems.
The level playing field that Linux creates is more friendly to the economy than Windows. When it comes to Windows, you have only one company raking in the dough: Microsoft. When it comes to Linux, you have multiple companies raking in the dough: Caldera, Corel, Debian, Mandrake, Red Hat, Slackware, SuSE, and TurboLinux -- all represented at the show. (I may even have missed a few minor distributions in my list.) And because Linux is open source, anyone who wants to add his or her name to the list is free to do so.
This multitude of distributors gives Linux something that is entirely lacking in the Windows world: operating system competition. That's why Windows is moving forward (and some would argue backward) at a snail's pace. But the competition among Linux distributions is speeding the evolution of Linux at a phenomenal rate.
For example, little more than a year ago the best Linux installation program was a geek-only experience. Then Caldera leapfrogged Linux and Windows to offer the best installation on the market.
The important thing to note is not what Caldera did, but what the rest of the distribution publishers did. They rushed to match or beat Caldera. Corel cranked out a phenomenally easy installation process in months. Red Hat improved its installation program somewhat, and Mandrake completely overhauled its installation. Does anyone think these installation programs would have improved as dramatically if one company was selling Linux? Real competition is great when it works.
And how has the Windows installation process been progressing all this time? Like a slug. It has barely changed in the last five years. There have only been incremental improvements in the installation process, not because there isn't much more room for improvement, but because Microsoft doesn't have to compete with any other Windows distributors. Heck, if it weren't for Linux nipping at its tail, I doubt if Microsoft would have addressed in Windows 2000 the fact that you need to reboot Windows NT every time you change a trivial setting. And these improvements aren't even comprehensive -- you still have to reboot under certain circumstances.
In short, the reasons Unix fragmented are the same reasons Linux will not fragment: money. Unix fragmented because vendors wanted to sell hardware; it was in their best interest to lock customers into one type of hardware by making their versions of Unix proprietary. When it comes to Linux (especially on Intel), the most important vendors are the ones that want to sell software.
For Oracle to make as much money as possible, it has to be able to say it runs on all versions of Linux. And in order for Linux distributors to sell their distributions, they have to say their distribution supports Oracle. That's why distributors and third parties such as Oracle are supporting the Linux Standard Base. That's why Linux is unlikely to fragment. Of course, I could be wrong. What do you think?
Nicholas Petreley is contributing editor at LinuxWorld and InfoWorld. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.