Once and future Linux

SAN FRANCISCO (09/19/2003) - People have always been fascinated with the notion of alternate futures -- the idea that pivotal events could send the world on several different paths, each leading to a radically different outcome.

Moviemakers have explored this idea in films as diverse as It's a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, and Sliding Doors. Physicists have even pondered whether new worlds are spun off with every roll of the quantum dice, creating an infinite profusion of universes that exemplify all possible futures.

This week, InfoWorld considers one such pivotal event that, while it may not change the laws of physics, could certainly transform the basic principles of information technology.

That event is The SCO Group Inc.'s legal battle with IBM Corp. over Linux. In "Linux Faces an Uncertain Future if SCO Prevails,"IDG News Service correspondent Robert McMillan examines the possibility that the tiny software company succeeds in laying claim to a portion of the popular open source operating system, supposedly derived from SCO's earlier System V Unix. That would leave nearly every company now using Linux with the choice of abandoning it or paying SCO license fees, unless a new "cleansed" version of Linux is developed quickly.

Worse, SCO's claim on Linux depends on a broad interpretation of the legal concept of "derivative works" that might leave other major vendors, such as Silicon Graphics Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., vulnerable to challenge for their Linux contributions, according to experts McMillan interviewed. And it could throw into question any number of proprietary products built upon Unix code.

The legal wrangling even extends to the validity of the GNU GPL (General Public License), a cornerstone of the open source movement. If the GPL tumbled, that would undermine the public nature of not only Linux but other popular open source products.

Given those scary scenarios, you might assume that the alternate reality -- the one in which SCO loses -- would be completely reassuring.

Not quite, says InfoWorld editor at large Ed Scannell. Sure, an IBM victory would make it harder for other firms to claim ownership of Linux. But IBM, which collects more than $1 billion a year from software patents, is no foe of proprietary software, and a court victory might embolden the company even more, some observers fear.

Still, InfoWorld's advice is to sit tight and stay tuned. There are plenty of alternative OSes that are not subject to challenge, ranging from free ones like NetBSD and FreeBSD to proprietary solutions from Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and Apple Computer Inc. And predicting the future is a dicey business at best. While we cover the foreseeable outcomes of this legal mess, reality often confounds even the best forecasts.

The ability to discern which pivotal events will shape the future of IT is a defining quality of leadership, and at InfoWorld, we believe visionary leaders deserve recognition. Nominate your choicefor our 25 Most Influential CTOs awards. The deadline for submissions is the end of this month.

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