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Linux analysts, users offer varied predictions on SCO suit

There is little clarity on the long-term impact SCO Group's suit against IBM Corp. will have on Linux.

In the six days since SCO Group filed suit against IBM Corp. as part of a dispute over Linux, there's been no shortage of people wanting to weigh in on what it all means. Hundreds of people have posted messages about the issue on the bulletin board. Meanwhile, vendors have tried to position themselves in ways that will be most reassuring to their customers. And Linux enthusiasts everywhere have fumed.

But the cacophony of voices has yet to produce any clarity on the issue, as industry watchers offer radically different views on the potential import of SCO's claim that IBM improperly donated portions of SCO's System V Unix code to the community that maintains the GNU/Linux operating system.

"This is definitely the biggest thing that's happed in Linux and open-source since I've been covering it," said Bill Claybrook, a Boston-area analyst with Aberdeen Group since 1999, a one-time Unix kernel developer and a former professor of computer science. "It's hard to know what will come out of it. Is SCO going to make them rip all the code out of Linux? Think of the uncertainty and the fear. There's nothing good coming out of this for Linux."

Others, however, say that SCO's 31-page complaint is short on specifics and is evidence of the company's weak market position.

"I don't see any threat to Linux, based on what they've stated in their claim," said Stacey Quandt, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based analyst for Giga Information Group. "[SCO has] a legacy market; they have a negligible install base using Linux. … This is a sign of weakness for SCO."

SCO filed suit on Thursday. In its complaint, the Lindon, Utah, company alleges that IBM -- a license holder of SCO's Unix software -- violated its license agreement by donating Unix code to the Linux community, a move that SCO says was designed to benefit the Linux-based aspects of IBM's business at the expense of Unix. The complaint also alleges that IBM contributed software developed as part of a now-defunct SCO-IBM initiative, which was code-named Monterey.

SCO is demanding at least $1 billion, and the company has sent a letter to IBM threatening to terminate its Unix license within 100 days. The SCO strategy was developed with the help of attorney David Boies, better known for representing the Department of Justice during the Microsoft antitrust trial and Al Gore during the Florida recount.

SCO's allegations

The complaint, at first blush, struck some as confusing, given that IBM is a leading provider of Unix technology in the form of its AIX platform. In its complaint, though, SCO alleges that IBM is in the process of shifting from a traditional product-based model, one that relies on AIX, to a services-based model that relies heavily on enterprise adoption of Linux. To this end, SCO alleges, IBM donated proprietary Unix code to the community of Linux developers.

IBM has yet to respond in detail to the charges. Rather, the company issued a short statement saying it has not had sufficient time to review the allegations and that, "based on a quick read, the complaint is full of bare allegations with no supporting facts," according to spokesman Joe Stunkard.

Since the suit was filed, more than 2,600 messages have been posted on Slashdot about the issue. One of IBM's competitors, Sun Microsystems Inc., has issued a news release stating that it has no licensing issues with SCO and that "Solaris and Sun Linux represent safe choices for those companies that develop and deploy services based on Unix systems." Meanwhile, one of SCO's partners in the UnitedLinux effort -- SuSE Linux AG -- has announced it is rethinking its relationship with SCO.

In general, Linux users are quick to express skepticism about the allegations and take jabs at the struggling SCO, which posted a net loss of $724,000 during its first fiscal quarter this year.

"IBM has decades of experience in IP [intellectual property] management; it's doubtful that they would have allowed their Linux work to expose them to a Unix lawsuit," said Terry Traub, a Linux user and a consultant with Belmont, Mass.-based Tasty Software Inc., a software development services provider, in an e-mail interview with "Furthermore, IBM has deep pockets. SCO had better be ready for a 5-year battle and, of the two companies, you can probably guess which one will still be around in 2008."

Lose-lose outcome for Linux?

Others, however, including Aberdeen's Claybrook, note that SCO has a right to defend its intellectual property.

"If they did do this," he said of IBM, "it was very careless and stupid."

Claybrook added that, even if SCO eventually loses, the climate of uncertainty could be bad for Linux, especially if the issue drags on for some time.

"For people like Microsoft, they couldn't have asked for anything better," he said, "because they'll use this to put fear and doubt in people's minds: 'what we've been saying is something like this could come along and happen.' The stuff coming out of Microsoft is going to be unreal after this. … If I were an IT manager and someone was trying to sell me Linux. I'd be thinking, 'What if I buy this and get it installed and two weeks later somebody comes by and says, 'too bad?'"

Others, however, see a less dire picture.

Scott Nathan, a Boston-area attorney who provides legal and consulting services to technology companies and open-source software providers, said he doesn't see a reason for Linux users to be alarmed.

"There's a real question" about whether SCO will be able to sustain its claim that its code was used improperly by IBM, Nathan said. And even in the event of a worst-case scenario for Linux users -- that is, if SCO won its battle -- it would be years before small Linux shops would hear from SCO, he predicted. Given that Linux is free, the risk-return equation isn't necessarily that unpleasant, he said.

"Does it mean that there could be a chill in the air? I suppose that's possible," he said, but added: "I don't think the SCO situation was a calculated situation. I don't think SCO management has been sitting around for four or five years waiting for the right time to file suit and attempt to capture revenue. I think there was a reorganization at SCO, they're in financial trouble, they're looking for ways to find money, and this was a brainstorm."

FOR MORE INFORMATION: news exclusive: "SuSE CEO on SCO suit, United Linux and more news exclusive: "Analyst recognizes Linux on most enterprise agendas"

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