Did Linux Miss Its Window?
October 10, 2001
Is it possible that Linux missed its big chance for mainstream success?
One factor is that two years after Red Hat (Nasdaq: RHAT) and VA Linux (Nasdaq: LNUX) went public at the height of the dot-com IPO fever, Red Hat is trading far below its late 1999 heights of US$150 or so. As of mid-morning Tuesday, Red Hat stock was trading at $3.54.
And VA Linux is in danger of being delisted as its stock hovers near $1 per share, down from a 52-week high of almost $250.
Tech stocks in general have experienced a dramatic drop, but Linux stocks have plummeted even faster. Wall Street, at least, seems to be raising its eyebrows at the idea of giving away software and making money on support, books and stuffed penguin dolls.
More importantly, Linux has not aggressively exploited the nearly two-year gap between the release of Windows 2000 and the release of Windows XP. With the Home Edition of XP now the standard operating system shipped with most PCs, Linux advocates can no longer use the instability of Windows 95/98/Me as an argument for Linux.
XP is based on the NT kernel and therefore has none of the intentional tradeoffs of stability for compatibility that plagued previous home versions of Windows.
A company writing hardware drivers or applications for Windows is now even more likely to target them only at XP. Before, with the 95/98/Me vs. NT/2000 split, companies already had to target two platforms, making it more likely that they would also port to a third one (Linux). Now, with one dominant platform, they have more incentive to write their code once, in a non-platform-independent way, and be done with it.
Linux advocates missed a golden opportunity to evangelize their platform to these third-party hardware and software companies. Instead, they spent their time arguing over issues like whether KDE or Gnome was a better desktop environment, ignoring how confusing that topic was to other developers.
The most critical time period that was missed by Linux was the one during which Microsoft ignored or belittled Linux as a serious competitive threat. When Eric Raymond spoke at Microsoft in June 1999, the attitude in the audience was fairly basic ... Sure, Linux has some code that works, but let's see them get the hardware and application support that Windows has.
At the Windows 2000 ship party in December of 1999, Steve Ballmer described Linux as a "piece of crap" and said there was "no way it was as stable as Windows 2000." He also mocked Linus Torvalds as "that Finnish guy who doesn't even work on the code anymore."
In February 2000, I attended an internal Microsoft briefing on Linux as a competitive threat. This briefing wasn't about competing with Linux -- it was about competing with Red Hat.
Microsoft had ignored the advice from its own infamous Halloween Documents on how to approach Linux -- that it was not a single company, but the whole movement that must be addressed.
Now, three years after the Halloween Documents were leaked, attitudes at Microsoft have changed. Steve Ballmer has described Linux as the No. 1 threat to Microsoft. The forthcoming server version of Windows XP will finally have reasonable utilities for controlling a "headless" server, like the rack-mounted ones used by Web hosting companies.
The company is still refusing to bundle its Interix toolset (which provides real Unix-style shells, command-line utilities, daemons, development libraries, and the like) with Windows, but I have heard that it is at least going to stop charging $99 for it and make it available for free download on the Internet.
Companies such as Lotus, WordPerfect and Novell have experienced what it is like to have Microsoft directly focused on taking away their business, and the results have not been encouraging.
Now Linux is firmly in the Redmond crosshairs. The unique aspects of Linux development ensure that it will survive in some form, but the Linux community may regret the time it has wasted.
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over ten years before leaving in April 2000. His book about his time there, "Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters," was published in December 2000. He lives in Redmond, Washington. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.