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Weekly Column

Going for a Streak-Free Finish: Will Microsoft's Answer to Linux Be Windex Instead?

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

I have written before about my sister and how she worked at EsMark, the old food conglomerate, at a time when the company was trying to trademark the word "soup." That story and the audacity behind it came to mind again this week as further developments took place in the bizarre saga of SCO versus most of the rest of the computing world. As you'll recall, SCO has sued IBM for $1 billion, claiming Big Blue stole bits of Unix System V and tucked them into Linux, thus decreasing the value of SCO's property as the rightful owner of Unix. SCO then went on to drop its own Linux product line, and sent a threatening letter to 1,500 big companies claiming they might be held liable if they continue using Linux. Oh, and in the middle of all this SCO sold a Unix license to Microsoft. That was all last week.

This week, Novell -- which sold the Unix rights to SCO back in 1995 -- claimed that while it may have sold rights, it never sold Unix, and that all patents and trademarks still reside with Novell. This may not matter all that much given the fact that SCO did buy from Novell the right to license Unix, something the patent and copyright holder has not done in eight years. But Novell made a good point, which was that SCO had been asking for the copyrights for some time, and Novell had refused. If being the copyright holder didn't matter, why did SCO want that role so badly?

Let's try to make some sense of all this.

We have SCO trying to alienate every potential customer and partner except Microsoft. We have Microsoft buying a license for Unix from SCO. And we have IBM slowly rising to anger. At stake is certainly Linux and perhaps FreeBSD, NetBSD, and any other Unix that doesn't come with an SCO license. SCO wants to simply kill Linux and the others, replacing them with its own software. All those copies of Apache will have to run on some operating system, and SCO thinks that will be theirs. And if they prevail, that's what they think will actually happen, the poor sods. It won't of course, because Microsoft wouldn't allow SCO to fill that vacuum. The boys and girls in Redmond would go instantly from being SCO's best friend to its worst enemy, throwing a couple billion bucks into the marketing kitty and easily killing SCO where they could never before kill Linux. It is a brilliant plan: If SCO wins, Microsoft wins; if SCO loses, Microsoft is unhurt and Linux is still hobbled a bit in the marketplace due to the shaken confidence of customers and potential customers.

What about the claim that IBM put Unix code into Linux? There have been two changes on that front since last week. First, a number of Linux hackers called me to claim that IBM certainly HAD mucked about in the guts of Linux despite my claim that they hadn't. In question is the System 390 version of Linux, written by IBM. Wasn't that mucking about on a grand scale? I don't think so, and here is why.

There is a big difference between rewriting code and porting it to another platform. The majority of IBM's work on the S/390 was to port it to a very alien platform. I'm sure there were parts of Linux that needed some code help -- for example, the S/390 handles disk and file systems quite a bit differently. That disk and file system predates almost all contemporary computer hardware. The file system originated in the S/360 days, the 1960s.

Yes, IBM put more effort and lines of code into an S/390 port of Linux. However, the result certainly would not have been anything anyone else could use, and certainly wouldn't be something SCO could lay claim to.

IBM has kept its AIX version of Unix viable and distinctly separate. The latest generation, version 5.xL,includes mainframe (S/390) logical partitioning. This OS exploits the capabilities of IBM's multiprocessor p6x0 series technology. Linux has nothing like this logical partitioning, nor does SCO.

AIX may be Unix. But it is Unix completely redesigned and rewritten. I doubt it has very little in common with the original Unix licensed from AT&T however long ago. I think SCO will have a big challenge finding anything in AIX that bears resemblance to their Unix, much less anything in AIX that may be in Linux.

I could be very wrong about this, but I don't think I am.

SCO has been very mysterious about proving its claims, too. I doubt that they can prove anything, but that probably doesn't matter to them. What matters is the approaching June 13th deadline, which is when SCO can yank IBM's Unix license, making any subsequent copies of AIX not Unix. A little company like SCO would think this deadline would shiver the timbers of IBM and its customers alike, but it won't. IBM will simply indemnify its customers against an unlikely SCO win and go on selling AIX as usual. If SCO tries for a preliminary injunction, IBM will just post a bond.

It doesn't help, either, that one of SCO's own people made a strong argument awhile back against the whole idea that Unix code could make it into the Linux kernel. Linus Torvalds found a Linux-kernel mailing list (lkml) posting from Christoph Hellwig, a former employee at SCO, then called Caldera. Hellwig pointed out the impracticality of actually getting copied code from UnixWare accepted by the tough critics on the mailing list. "The kernel internals are so different that you'd need a big glue layer to actually make it work and you can guess how that would be ripped apart in a usual lkml review," Hellwig wrote.

If SCO gets any money from IBM, it will be a decade from now, which probably explains the steep drop of SCO's stock on Wednesday even though the company reported good financial results. The market has already decided that SCO can't win.

What about Microsoft? A week ago, I saw them strictly as a spoiler, suckering SCO into this suicide play. But now I find myself wondering if there isn't some deeper story here. Microsoft says its Unix license was just like any number of similar licenses they have taken in the past to avoid any possible violation of another company's intellectual property rights. Yeah, right. I can't find anyone who can name such a Microsoft license that was not taken as part of an out-of-court settlement. It is more the truth that Microsoft takes licenses only when it is forced to.

SCO doesn't appear to be forcing Microsoft, so I can only come to the conclusion that Redmond is thinking of actually using that license, selling its own version of Unix. I wrote about something very similar to this a few months ago, only then I speculated that Microsoft might build a new OS atop Linux. But why use Linux when they could claim Unix, instead? The key here, I think, is the Windows emulation technology Microsoft got when it bought Connectix. Originally aimed at server consolidation, that code could be used by Microsoft to create and sell a Unix/Windows hybrid that would be a big success if Linux is killed by SCO. And the new Microsoft OS would even be a viable competitor to Linux if SCO loses, since it would offer Windows application compatibility. Microsoft could certainly use a sturdy server operating system for a change.

I'd call it "Windex." Or do you think some other company has already trademarked that name?

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