The State of GNU/Linux in 2002: It was Good.

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 8:55 PM

This year has proven most interesting for GNU/Linux. While there were not any amazing surprises, there were numerous events that are noteworthy for review. The upshot to all of this is that most of what happened was good overall for the Free Software community.

One of the most notable events for Linux this year came early in March when Sharp Electronics started marketing the first mainstream GNU/Linux PDA. The Zaurus, which premiered at $500, started off by appearing in electronics stores across the United States, including Best Buy and Office Depot. While by the end of August, Best Buy had cleared out their stock; Office Depot seems to be sticking around for the long haul.

The Zaurus seems to have fulfilled the promise of a powerful GNU/Linux PDA, attracting interest from a wide array of pundits and purchasers alike. In fact, yours truly is writing on the said device right now. On a side note, the Zaurus SL-5500, which will be replaced with the 5600 in early 2003, won the best Innovation award in the Open for Business Open Choice awards in July.

Linux got another round of mainstream attention in June, when, through a series of announcements, mega-retailer Wal-Mart announced plans to offer not one, but three different Linux distributions on their line of Microtel PC's. Since then, the company has also started to offer custom configuration of the systems.

UPDATE (2003.01.01 22:23 EST): OfB contributing editor Eduardo Sanchez points out that, according to a recent ZDNet article, the Microtel $199 LindowsOS preloaded PC has been a “hot seller” at

2002 was also a year of uniting, starting with the formation of UnitedLinux in late May. The alliance, a motley group of two has-been GNU/Linux contenders (Caldera and TurboLinux) and two fairly strong players (SuSE and Conectiva), left most people wondering what exactly the group hoped to do in its quixotic attack on Red Hat. More puzzling was why anyone would want to ally with a company with as little to offer as Caldera, or would let Ransom Love - whose name does not represent the emotion most often expressed towards him - speak as a “spokesman” for the new consortium.

It does seem that the group did finally get the message that Love, if anywhere in the organization, shouldn't be the one speaking for the group - perhaps the muffled sounds of him speaking with a sneaker jammed into his mouth was what finally got that change accomplished (needless to say, Love's comments caused lots of fire towards UnitedLinux for its first few weeks). Whatever the case, the group did manage to get UnitedLinux 1.0 out by year's end, just as they promised, which shows at least the development is better managed than the publicity.

UnitedLinux wasn't the only game in town for various groups joining forces this year, either. We (that is, Open for Business) were part of the alliance that created the popular new GNU/Linux news network Linux Daily News on July 2. It should be said that talks between OfB, LinuxandMain,, and began months before the UnitedLinux announcement, so this was a strange coincidence and not a sign that your GNU/Linux media has taken to playing follow-the-leader with the companies we cover.

Not particularly surprisingly, Red Hat did not fail to provide some of the most interesting (and controversial) news items of the year. It all started in the spring, when Red Hat announced a first ever program offering a rebate to those who “upgraded” from select other distributions to Red Hat Linux 7.3. Beyond drawing a lot of attention in commentaries, it is not apparent whether this program was successful or not.

Red Hat continued plowing forward with controversial moves when, in late July, it became public knowledge that Red Hat was asking a major project it had often ignored to promote Red Hat, while in exchange, the company would do nothing more than mention the project's name on some signage. That might not have sounded like a bad deal had it not been one of the most recognized projects in the community: KDE. Considering that KDE receives most of its support from Red Hat competitors MandrakeSoft and SuSE, and none from Red Hat itself, the project's developers weren't too keen on the offer. After Open for Business' exclusive coverage of the conflict, however, Red Hat made good on its mistake, and KDE showed off their handiwork on Red Hat, using a nice machine provided by the company.

Still, Red Hat, perhaps on a quest for the controversial, hit two more big items as fall approached. The first, BlueCurve, has been a rather polarizing issue; those using GNOME seem to like it, whereas those using KDE do not. The issue at stake is the fact that most of “KDE” on Red Hat systems has been modified to look and act like GNOME. In fact, the vendor went so far as to make GNOME applications default over their KDE counterparts in most situations, even when using KDE. The other issue we mentioned promised to show perhaps what the “red” in Red Hat really meant, as the company surprisingly removed the Taiwanese flag from the localization dialogs in favor of the communist mainland's flag. Worse, at least to those who don't look up to Mao, Red Hat labeled the change a “bug fix.” Ouch.

Still, it might be most appropriate to rename Red Hat to Midnight Grey Hat (Black Hat is taken), as the company announced a first ever profit in its latest quarter. That's right, the company best known for the mysterious guy in the red Fedora is no longer in the red.

Unfortunately, things didn't go quite as well for those in Paris, France. MandrakeSoft, the popular GNU/Linux developer that almost wasn't until the company's founders managed to take back the helm in 2001, was forced to issue two pleas for financial assistance as it continued to reel from the debt built up during the previous management's one year reign. While the company's “MandrakeClub” was at first looked on as nothing more than a donation system, by the time that the March 2002 financial communiqué caught everyone's attention, the membership service was finally starting to shape up into something useful.

MandrakeSoft also stirred up the dust of controversy earlier this month with the announcement of their new Multiple Network Firewall product. While the package's availability as a proprietary product (as well as a GPL'ed download), and the associated lock-down on intellectual property, caused somewhat of a skirmish, Duval cleared up much of the concern in an interview with me two weeks ago.

Certainly, MandrakeSoft isn't alone in the financial woes department, with two other long-time GNU/Linux names, Lineo and TurboLinux, going up on the auction block over the year. A third, Caldera, didn't go up for sale, but it did change its identity to a company it bought the year before, renaming itself the SCO Group, and seemingly refocusing on the proprietary UNIXes that the original SCO had developed.

The year was also a great period for software releases, with the highly anticipated GNOME 2.0 finally arriving and bringing that desktop back into the ring with KDE, which had been significantly ahead since the 2000 release of KDE 2.0. Still, due to a decision that is hoped to increase the latter project's next generation platform longevity, KDE 3.0 was already out the door before GNOME's June release.

Other exciting software releases for the year most certainly include the first non-development release of a full-fledged Free Software office suite, 1.0. The suite, while still tied to a molasses slow startup time, offers nearly perfect compatibility with Microsoft Office 97/2000/XP, making a non-Microsoft office product finally a reality for many businesses. Likewise, while it really offers only a few major advantages (and some disadvantages) over KDE's Konqueror, Mozilla 1.0 finally did arrive on the scene attracting attention from many mainstream sources. While its impact on the “browser wars” may be minimal, it does promise a real alternative to Internet Explorer on pretty much any platform.

Last, and certainly least, if one goes by media attention, was the arrival of popular “proprietary GNU/Linux” distributions. The duo of Xandros Desktop and LindowsOS (incidentally, both based on the same never released Corel Linux OS 3.0) both sport much more restrictive licenses than any other popular distribution, requiring per-seat licensing for businesses. As our review of Xandros revealed, the package is a pretty good deal — but mostly for those looking to run Windows applications under GNU/Linux. You'll have to wait a few more weeks to hear from us about LindowsOS.

In all, it may not have been a perfect year for GNU/Linux, but in my opinion, the successes far outweigh the failures. All indications seem to suggest that 2003 might just be even better.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.