In the week or so since Intel invested in Red Hat
the 'mainstream' computer industry has been falling
over itself to take Linux seriously. Its prospects
of displacing Windows have been assessed, Caldera
has suggested that it too might be getting some Intel
money, and Red Hat CEO Bob Young is predicting that
six out of the top ten server manufacturers will be
offering Linux by next year.
As we understand it a considerable proportion of the
Linux 'community' (whatever that is) couldn't care
less whether the 'proper' PC industry takes Linux
seriously or not, but as we hope to explain here,
it's going to be impossible to ignore the process of
being taken seriously, and the phenomenon of everybody
loving Linux isn't necessarily going to work out for
The basic problem is that the PC industry business
model and the Linux one are probably mutually
incompatible - as a matter of fact, it's kind of
difficult to pin down any kind of business model that
the Linux one could be thought of as being compatible
with. Giving the product away and selling the service
and add-ons is understandable to business (e.g. Gillette
and razor blades), but the 'revolution without leaders'
aspect is alien - who do you deal with?
Intel must to some extent have understood this when it
put money into Red Hat, and when it joined Linux
International. Membership of Linux International gives
it a seat at a top table of some form (but not, as we
understand it, the top table), while buddying-up to
Red Hat gives the company something to negotiate with.
It also gives Red Hat access to pre-release information
on Intel processors, just like Intel's other strategic
partners. But this is obviously a two-edged sword.
First among equals?
If Red Hat benefits from getting Intel confidential data
in advance of the rest of the Linux world the company's
probably dead meat. It will be seen by some as being
sucked into being Intel's tame, proprietary Linux, by
others as bidding for leadership of the Linux world
- basically, if Intel set up a Red Hat relationship that
was absolutely equivalent to its other strategic
relationships, it would probably break the whole thing.
Bob Young seems to understand this, and if Intel is
really going to put money into Caldera as well it might
well be that Intel at least half understands it. Intel
needs to figure out a way to co-operate with Linux and
share information without favouring any one outfit.
But if we look at what Linux developers want, how
Intel's business model works, and then try to put the
two together we can clearly see big problems ahead. The
Linux people want the hardware information that will
allow them to produce software, and the obvious way to
deliver this within the Linux model would be for Intel
just to post the whole lot on the Web as soon as it's
got it. But this is where the mutually incompatible
business models come in.
Intel is constantly changing its hardware, and uses
data on forthcoming hardware as a competitive weapon.
Digital sued Intel because of this, and Intergraph is
currently suing Intel because of this, claiming the
company cut off the information supply as part of a
bid it blackmail intellectual property out of it. And
a few years back Intel pushed the Pentium into the
market faster than the old-guard of the PC industry
expected or wanted, by the simple expedient of building
the chipsets and the motherboards itself, and leveraging
alliances with the companies that would go along with
the approach, Dell, Gateway and Packard-Bell. These
three benefited hugely, and it cost Compaq, which missed
the early Pentium boom, a bundle.
Intel uses its proprietary information to play hard-ball,
and regards it as the key weapon in its armoury. It's
willing to share that information, but there's always
going to be a price - Intel might be able to evolve the
model so it could negotiate the price with a couple of
Linux companies, but it can't go the whole way without
destroying its business model (mind you, the FTC antitrust
action against the company next year may end up doing this
Naturally Intel isn't particularly keen on such overly
brutal interpretations of its business model, but even if
we take a more positive view of it, say from the
perspective of Dell, we can see problems arising as the
PC business tries to adopt Linux.
Linux and the Wintel model
In saying six top vendors will soon offer Linux,
Bob Young is just stating the obvious - Intel backing
together with the demand they'll have been experiencing
makes it inevitable that the major PC companies will
start experimentally offering Linux in the very near
future. But how?
Dell's relationship with Intel is just about the
strongest of any PC company, and the way it puts its
machines together is approximately as follows. It relies
heavily on Intel's R&D, and does R&D of its own which it
then leverages with Intel's via cross-licensing deals.
Keeping close to Intel developers allows it to stay
within industry standards (it's a given that Intel is
the company that defines the standards) while influencing
them in the directions it wants. The approach has been
massively successful, and both Dell and Intel love it.
The co-operation obviously has to cover both hardware and
software, so Microsoft intersects with the process, and
the result is that Dell gets totally integrated and
shrink-wrapped products to market early, frequently first.
We've used Dell as an example, but the approach is similar
throughout the PC business. Acceptance of Wintel hegemony
lets them all keep in step on standards, and lets them get
shrink-wrapped, ready to go products onto the market.
Now, if the PC companies are going to offer Linux, it's
obvious that the business models will become more and more
obviously incompatible as their Linux offerings become more
and more broad range. Each of the companies will tend to
want to adopt a single Linux as its standard, and it will
want to have its own software and hardware developers
working closely with Intel's in order to optimise the end
products, and give it the ability to sell fast, reliable
read-to-go Linux servers. A Linux distributor might get
involved in this process, or it might not.
The upside of this will be that at least Microsoft won't
be allowed to play, but there are obvious dangers - a few
Linux operations may get most of the pie, the PC vendors
themselves could end up producing their own 'commercial'
implementations of Linux, or Intel could wind up running
a de facto proprietary version of Linux as the new industry
We're not saying this will definitely happen, so please,
no hate mail. What we think we're trying to say is that
the collision of Linux and the conventional PC industry
is going to have odd, unexpected and unpredictable
consequences. In the worst possible case scenario, we
get a repeat of the Unix wars, and somehow Bill and his
Merry Men emerge triumphant again. A better outcome that
involves both the PC business and Linux changing is
possible, but it will be tricky to manage. And yes, we
do think Linux will change, whether or not the 'community'
resists it. ®
© 1998 Situation Publishing.
The Register, 20-22 Maddox Street, London, W1R 9PG.
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Edited by Mike Magee , John Lettice and Drew Cullen.
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