Where credit is due

It's time for many of us pundits to dole out awards for achievements either glorious or dubious. The first in my batch of less-than-glorious honours is the 'Beverage Through the Nose' award.

It's time for many of us pundits to dole out awards for achievements either glorious or dubious.

The first in my batch of less-than-glorious honours is the "Beverage Through the Nose" award. Microsoft was the first to earn this beauty several years ago when it announced the oxymoron "Zero Administration Windows". Microsoft continued to win the award every year following, and 2001 is no exception. I pity the poor fool who was drinking hot coffee or a carbonated drink when Microsoft insisted for the umpteenth time that it does not have a monopoly on the desktop.

If Microsoft doesn't have a monopoly on the desktop, then I wish someone would explain to me why there's almost no business desktop software left that isn't made by Microsoft. The only thing Microsoft hasn't embraced and extended yet is antivirus software and maybe a couple of desktop firewalls. Some people may point to Quicken as an example of a successful non-Microsoft product. But Quicken wouldn't have a place in the ever-shrinking list of non-Microsoft offerings if the US Department of Justice hadn't put the kibosh on Microsoft's attempt to buy the package.

The "Whoops, My Bad" award goes to some bozo columnist named Nicholas Petreley. He predicted nothing but success for VA Software (formerly known as VA Linux), and at first it looked like his prediction would be right on target. VA made history with the most successful IPO ever. The stock price soared to about $US320 per share on the first day, closing at about $US240.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, VA stock sells for about $US3 per share. Venture capitalists were partly responsible for the blowout. They bought into Linux hype without giving any consideration to how people would make money on free software and how the competition like IBM would affect the future of VA. But VA deserves some of the blame, too. The top guns spent way too much money early in the company's growth phase, leaving it extremely vulnerable when the dot-com bubble popped.

VA Software itself gets the "Best Impression of Microsoft" award. VA Linux launched its recovery programme by employing a Microsoftian approach to failure. It changed its name. Microsoft learned early on that it was easier to change the name of a technology and relaunch it than to fix the problems. When OLE got a reputation for being a fat, slow, insecure technology, Microsoft simply repackaged it and called it ActiveX. Voila! Same technology without the bad PR baggage. It was sleight of hand, but many people bought it.

So VA Linux is now VA Software. Voila! Same company without the failed Linux start-up PR baggage. It may work, but I'd rather have seen VA focus on becoming a service-based company at the first sign of trouble than become a software company after most of the damage was done.

VA Software also walks away with the "So Much for the Free Software Ethic" award. To its credit, VA still supports the open-source community in a philanthropic fashion. VA provides open-source developers with free access to Sourceforge, an internet server farm that uses VA's collection of web-based project management and version-control tools. But VA has repackaged the Sourceforge software as a couple of pseudo-proprietary products it now sells and services.

Caldera, on the other hand, was always more business-oriented and far less gung-ho about free software than VA. So it wasn't really surprising when Caldera started charging per-seat fees for commercial use of its Linux distributions. But Caldera takes the "What the Heck Was That All About?" award for purchasing the rights to Unix and the line of Unix products from SCO. I've gone back and forth over whether this was a good idea, and I'm not prepared to take a stand even now. By the time I figure out what the point of this acquisition was, it probably won't matter anymore. Heck, it hardly matters now.

Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Hayward, California. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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