On May 14, the SCO Group announced that it was pulling out of the UnitedLinux consortium and abandoning its Linux business. Subsequently, on March 19, Microsoft announced that it had reached an agreement to license UNIX from SCO, despite the fact that it had no intentions to sell UNIX or to write applications for the operating system.
What's going on? Why are these two relatively minor news events in the tech sector making everyone hot and flushed and nervous? Why is the Linux community so upset?
There are moments in time when all the elements of a rip-roaring epic begin to merge in the tech sector, and--as reported in the March issue of MC Mag Online in "Bowling for Linux"--we are witnessing a congregation of events that may prove to upset the strategies of super giants across the bandwidth of our industry.
SCO Sues IBM
The issue at hand is the $1 billion lawsuit SCO filed against IBM last March. In that lawsuit, SCO alleges that IBM "stole" code from its UNIX operating system and released that code to the open-source operating system called Linux.
In its defense, on May 1, IBM released a categorical denial that it had stolen anything from the aging UNIX operating system and said that it would vehemently contest the lawsuit.
The Core of IBM's eServer Strategy
For IBM, defending itself against this lawsuit also represents a defense of a core software/hardware strategy that has evolved over the last five to seven years as well as a dream of integration that goes back to the 1970s and the ill-fated Systems Application Architecture (SAA).
IBM needed a standards-based operating system that could run on all of its hardware platforms. It most recently addressed this strategy by implementing the virtual machine technology of Sun Microsystem's Java Virtual Machine (JVM).
Five years ago, as Sun backed away from its commitment to submit its Java technology to any international standards committee, IBM shifted its focus toward Linux.
Linux is a UNIX-like, standards-based OS that is distributed through the GNU open-source licensing agreement. This means that the source code for Linux is freely distributable--and modifiable--as long as the "openness" is maintained.
Today, through IBM's efforts, Linux runs on every eServer platform that IBM manufactures: xSeries, pSeries, iSeries, and zSeries. For the first time, IBM is in the enviable position of having "all its ducks in a row." The question is, does IBM have all its eggs in one basket?
The Linux Community Response
Meanwhile, Linux developers around the world have rallied around IBM because so much is at stake. They accused SCO of trying to turn the Linux operating into an intellectual property rights gold mine. If SCO succeeds in its lawsuit, the results will spell hard times for Linux distributors and the death of many strategic initiatives that underpin IBM's cross-platform eServer products.
SCO's Move out of Linux
SCO's abandonment of its Linux business is clearly a move to protect its flank in this lawsuit. Because SCO was an active contributor to the UnitedLinux consortium that is coordinating the distributions of the Linux operating system, SCO had an obvious conflict of interest within the organization, and its lawsuit with IBM would certainly dry up potential sources of new Linux customers.
But more importantly, as long as SCO was a part of the Linux community, it could be accused of seeding the Linux distributions with UNIX code that it had purposely planted for future lawsuits. Indeed, one of IBM's defense strategies in the lawsuit will be to contest SCO's own involvement in the development of Linux, stating that any UNIX code that strayed into Linux can be traced to SCO's own doorstep.
Microsoft Joins the Fray
Most curious of all are Microsoft's actions. On May 19, Microsoft reached out to SCO and announced that it would license UNIX from SCO to immunize itself from future lawsuits. This agreement comes despite Microsoft's claim that it has no intention of using UNIX in any form other than interface protocols. So why is Microsoft so keen on licensing SCO UNIX?
Microsoft says that its decision to license UNIX is in recognition that some of its interfaces with Linux and UNIX may inadvertently infringe upon SCO's intellectual property rights, dating back to Microsoft's attempt to build a UNIX-compatible version of DOS. But clearly, Microsoft feels that by adding credence to SCO's claims, it can increase the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) factor about Linux at precisely the time when Microsoft is trying to convince IT executives that they should invest in the new Windows 2003 product instead of Linux.
Microsoft's motivations are further questionable when one considers the history of "code sharing" of intellectual property that led to the development of Windows 2003 Server. Windows NT/2003 was created over a long period of time that began back when Bill Gates hired legendary David Cutler in 1988. David Cutler was the project leader for Digital Equipment and was in charge of developing the experimental Prism operating system--a rewrite of Digital's VMS operating system that was aimed at 32-bit computing. When Digital closed the Prism project in Seattle, Gates offered Cutler a position at Microsoft.
At that time, Microsoft was also in the midst of a collaborative technology agreement with IBM to develop a co-branded operating system called OS/2. Version 1 of OS/2 was released in 1987.
The point is that, when David Cutler came on board, Microsoft's only experience with 32-bit operating systems was derived from its technology agreement with IBM. Shortly thereafter, Microsoft released Windows 3.0 and began its development of a new 32-bit OS that it called "New Technology" or Windows/NT. This was released several years later in 1993.
Did Microsoft use some of IBM's OS/2 code in Windows 3.0? Possibly!
Did Microsoft use some of Digital Equipment's VMS or Prism code in Windows/NT? Certainly, there is ample room for speculation.
So, to protect itself, has Microsoft reached out to IBM to license OS/2 or VMS to safeguard its product from potential "inadvertent infringement?" No way!
The Linux Threat to Windows 2003
Clearly, Microsoft is putting its weight behind SCO because it sees Linux as the most serious threat to the success of Windows 2003 Server. And cash-flush Microsoft can afford to do this, lending credence in the public's mind that IBM probably did steal some UNIX code.
Meanwhile, SCO will certainly be well-funded by Microsoft's licensing revenue to battle Big Blue in court. And that's the final point: This lawsuit is going to take years to litigate, throwing clouds of uncertainty around Linux, making timid IT executives more inclined to weather the storm by migrating from Windows/NT to Windows 2003 Server instead of Linux.
Indeed, SCO has warned the industry that customers who have implemented Linux may, in the future, be liable for license infringements on UNIX. If this is the case--if SCO succeeds in defending its intellectual property rights to UNIX--the promising future of Linux will collapse with a resounding thud.
The Merits of the Lawsuit
On the surface, in the public's mind, it may appear to be the case. But when one studies the history of IBM's efforts over the years in developing so many different operating systems for its various hardware platforms, the likelihood dims considerably.
Consider that IBM licensed both the Bell Labs version and the Berkeley Labs version of UNIX and reconciled their technical differences to create AIX as a "standard version of UNIX" all the way back in 1986, before Bell Labs sold its UNIX source to Novell. (The 16-bit kernel of Linux itself was completed as a student project by Linus Torvalds back in 1991.) In that same time frame, IBM also created OS/2, while simultaneously crafting OS/400 from the System/38 operating system, while it was accomplishing major release updates of its mainframe VM in several parallel operating systems development projects.
That in-depth experience with managing the development of operating systems fostered a substantial understanding of the controlling change-management requirements of OS development, replete with automated mechanisms. It is inconceivable that--in its efforts to bring Linux to its current multi-platform status--IBM might "inadvertently" or "accidentally" slip UNIX code into Linux. Software engineers at IBM will tell you it just can't happen: IBM has internal systems to control such possible errors.
Meanwhile, the creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, says that the nature of the open-source project itself has allowed for a very detailed accounting of source additions, enabling the audit of every addition of code into the final distribution. According to Torvalds, "We've got all the history available somewhere, and it should be pretty easy to show when something was added and what the lineage was."
Law and Technology Collide
Yet the laws written on intellectual property are probably not as precise as IBM's change-management controls. If SCO can prove that it owns the "functionality" of UNIX--not just the code that creates that functionality--IBM's deep pockets could be substantially lightened in the legal outcome.
Meanwhile, SCO has overcome the first strategic hurdle in this lawsuit: It is now flush with Microsoft's UNIX licensing revenue and may entice others--including Sun Microsystems--into funding its complaint. This would be a strategic coup that could further inflame the already-troubled relationships that bind the various organizations in their pursuit of standards.
Regardless of the outcome, this case will prove to be the most interesting battle since the Department of Justice pulled Microsoft into court for antitrust violations.