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Free Software Project

IBM and Linux

Chapter 7, part 1
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How Big Blue fell for Linux
When open-source developers and IBM took gambles on each other, free software showed it can flourish in the heartland of corporate computing.

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By Andrew Leonard

Sept. 12, 2000 | The kitchen is the receptionist at, a software start-up in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco. No one is present to greet an inquisitive visitor walking through the open door on the fourth floor of a nondescript building -- just stacked cases of Snapple fruit juice and giant bags of pretzels; a refrigerator and a sink; a coffee machine and a water dispenser.

The ambience screams of youthful coder necessities. On top of the refrigerator, huge boxes of Trix and Cap'n Crunch line up like crates of ammunition. Next to the sink sits a large jar of Twizzlers. From the large, open room stretching beyond the kitchen, a seductive slither of spooky trance music pulses -- inviting, and yet at the same time a little intimidating. People who work in this kind of environment are almost too cool.

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A few concessions are made to the sensitivities of the less hip -- the potential investors or clients from the old world of computing who might drop by, looking to dump a million bucks here or there. Along one wall stands a free-standing rack packed with hundreds of issues of business/high tech magazines -- The Industry Standard, Business 2.0, Red Herring, Fortune.

The magazines may not make good marketing material right now., the brainchild of open-source star Brian Behlendorf,* aims to make a business out of, he says, "distilling the principles of open source." But at least half of the covers of these new-economy bibles are screaming dire, boldface warnings about the current dot-com meltdown, including Wall Street's sharp turn away from Linux-related stocks in the spring and summer.

It's a good thing the office tunes are soothing, because jangled nerves are suddenly everywhere in that strange land where free software and dot-com start-ups mix. In the summer of 1999, Red Hat's IPO, occurring right in the middle of a packed LinuxWorld convention, sent attendees into a dither of delight. But in mid-August, no less an authority than the New York Times takes advantage of another LinuxWorld convention to declaim about how Wall Street is souring on Linux.

The Gray Lady is a bit late to the story -- the trade press has been hooting about declining valuations since early in the spring, and competitors have long become adept at using the stock price declines of companies like Red Hat and VA Linux as evidence that the open-source upstarts don't pose a threat to established, proprietary software enterprises. Critics of free software are also muttering about continuing delays pushing back the release of the next version of Linux, and the failure of Netscape's Mozilla project to release a usable browser.

But the Times may also be a bit overeager: Barely one week after August's LinuxWorld, Linux companies like Caldera and VA Linux handily beat analyst estimates and watch their stock prices surge. Linux investors suddenly rejoice.

And yet, those who take heart in a one-day surge are just as guilty of overeagerness. Both cynics and Pollyannas are like marks suckered into a New York huckster's game of three-card monte. While they busily stare, striving to follow the movements of the dealer's hand, they never notice that Times Square around them is meanwhile being transformed from pimp heaven into Disneyland. Sure, companies in the business of selling Linux may have questionable prospects -- but the open-source revolution is still in full effect, rebuilding the software industry from top to bottom, forcing everyone to adapt.

Corporations involved in the software industry are exploring open-source software, some with the enthusiasm of bodysurfers losing themselves in the roaring surf, others with the timidity of diffident waders in a lagoon full of sharks. They are by no means unified in their approach as an industry sector, or even internally within a single company. But there are executives and engineers at all of these companies who believe that an extraordinarily clear business case can be made for open-source software: Figure out how to make it your friend, before it starts dancing on your grave.

To see this process in action, you don't need to look further than the computer industry's venerable giant, IBM -- which has become perhaps the best corporate friend open-source software has ever had.

. Next page | Hacker showdown at the mainframe corral
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Illustration by Richard Sala


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.Free Software Project home page

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The Free Software Project
Read Andrew Leonard's book-in-progress on Linux and open source -- and post your comments.


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