The valid concerns of the Unix technical community The technical community that uses Unix on a day to day basis has some valid concerns. For example, much of the Unix community is used to flexible networking under the openness of the TCP/IP umbrella. Although Novell does support TCP/IP in its UnixWare offering, the mainstay for […]
The valid concerns of the Unix technical community
The technical community that uses Unix on a day to day basis has some valid concerns. For example, much of the Unix community is used to flexible networking under the openness of the TCP/IP umbrella. Although Novell does support TCP/IP in its UnixWare offering, the mainstay for its networking (and the bulk of its business) is provided by NetWare’s IPX/SPX protocols. Moreover, Network File System, widely used in the world of Unix for resource sharing, can be viewed as a competitor to NetWare. The main concern, however, is an overriding apprehension that what’s good for NetWare may not be good for Unix. True, Novell seems to be promising that life will go on much as usual. But there is no gainsaying the fact that Novell is a publicly-owned company whose primary responsibilities are to its shareholders. Novell has no compelling reason (nor should it have) to keep on paying for the fuel that burns in the Unix flame. In the long run, Novell must make a profit out of owning Unix Labs and, if past performance is any indication, they will make a profit, no matter what it takes. As Larry Lytle, the main spokesman for Unix System Laboratories puts it: Unix Labs understands that it would be nave to believe that in any merger, nothing changes. The question is – what will change, and what will remain unchanged? …You can expect that Novell is going to run this as a business and is going to want Unix Labs to be profitable. They are going to have a great deal of influence on the future of Unix because they are going to influence, for example, how we spend our money on research and development.
The potential conflicts of interest thrown up by the deal
All of which create some interesting conflicts of interest. For instance, what about all the companies that use Unix to build products that compete against Novell? They will now have to license Unix from Novell in order to compete against them. For example, the Vines operating system from Banyan, a direct competitor of NetWare, is based on Unix. Every time Banyan sells an operating system, some of the money will go to Novell. There are many more companies that depend on their Unix licences just to build their products. It would be unrealistic to not expect to pay higher royalties in the foreseeable future. After all, Unix Labs has trouble making money but Unix Labs under Novell will have to make money. Moreover, we should assume that future decisions about Unix will have to take into account what is good for Novell. Does this mean that System V-based companies should be concerned about their future? Absolutely. Maybe not today, or even six months from now, but somewhere down the road the interests of Novell will not coincide with the Unix world at large. It is unrealistic to expect Novell to spend money to develop Unix for the good of everybody at the expense of their own company.
New opportunities – particularly for the Open Software Foundation
Much has been made of the threat that Microsoft and NT might pose to Unix. The combination of Novell and Unix, the refrain goes, has a much better chance of countering this threat than Unix Labs by itself. However, such observations ignore the fact that a small but significant share of the marketplace is best served by Unix no matter what Microsoft is up to. The many Unix value-added resellers and resellers should probably be more concerned with the loss of a stable, independent source for Unix than with an imaginary NT monster. What we see is a brand new opportunity for the Open Software Foundation, which, after all, offers the only large-scale alternative for a vendor-independent Unix-like operating system. It would be prudent for those Unix vendors that have not already made the switch to take a strong look at the Software Foundation. There is also an important opportunity for the Mark Williams Co which sells its Unix-like operating system (Coherent) for $100. Coherent can run System V binaries and may provide a viable, inexpensive basis for value-added resellers who sell vertical appl
The winds of change a’blowing
Although we can’t predict the future in detail, we can say that the winds of change are blowing ever more strongly. Novell is so rich that the Unix acquisition is relatively small potatoes. One way or the other, they can afford to do whatever they want. The financial results for Unix Labs seems to indicate that supplying System V to the world is not a good way to make money. If so, there is no reason to expect Novell to keep subsidising Unix out of altruism. The trouble is that we live in a part of the world in which many people depend on Unix – not to fight Microsoft and NT, but to earn their living – and there are too many unknowns. As we see it, the onus falls squarely on the shoulders of Ray Noorda. As Novell consummates the deal with AT&T, there should be guarantees made as to the future of Unix. These guarantees should be in writing and should be made public. Moreover, Noorda must finally set up a line of succession and give us some indication of how Novell (and Unix) will function when he bows out. It’s not that Novell has any moral or financial obligation to be the keeper of the Unix flame. It’s just that people have to make plans. Vague, contradictory statements of intent are not enough. It certainly behoves companies dependent on System V to re-evaluate their future.
Harley Hahn is an analyst and writer based in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of many books including A Student’s Guide to Unix, published by McGraw-Hill College Division.
Rick Stout, CPA, is an analyst and writer based in San Diego, California. With Hahn, he is the author of Power Shortcuts, Quattro Pro from Windows, published by MIS Press.