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UnitedLinux agrees to differ

Open access, but per-seat stays

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Caldera has pledged that developers and education users will get access to UnitedLinux binaries, after the four member distros have pooled their resources. But as the story unravels, it looks like the per-seat pricing looks like a stayer, at least for Caldera.

"The technology itself must be in people's hands," Caldera's VP of corporate development Bennoy Tanning told us, when we asked about binary availability yesterday.

UnitedLinux is a marriage of four distros - SuSE, Caldera, Conectiva and TurboLinux - but it isn't really a distro, as we were led to believe by the pre-launch rumor mill. Well, yes and no.

UnitedLinux is a server "distro" that at least shares common elements. The big four retain branding rights, so you'll still find "SuSE powered by UnitedLinux". And each distro can add on its own features. But you'll find the same files in the same places, which is long overdue, and signals a win for the Linux Standards Base initiative.

On the other hand, the distros will compete on the desktop, where UnitedLinux-shy Mandrake is dominant, so things could get really confusing really quickly. In OpenLinux each vendor speaks for himself, and SuSE was quick to distance itself from Caldera's model of per-seat licensing when it spoke to LinuxToday on Monday.

But wouldn't this prevent end users downloading .ISO binaries too? Tanning promised that an attractive model would be offered to developers and non-profit users, such as academic institutions. How much?

"Low barrier usually mean free," he said. "Access via the Internet will always be free," he added. Caldera might ask for sign-up details, but these wouldn't be more onerous than the Java program.

"We can never police these programs, nor do we want to spend the effort. But there will be a forum that should be a vehicle for academics and developers," he said.

So how has UnitedLinux been received by the community? From what we can tell, most people accept the need for the distros to unite, as times are tough. There's some disquiet about per-seat licencing, and binary availability, but much less than we expected.

If OpenLinux lacks anything however, it's a reason to exist, other than a rationalisation exercise. We know what it isn't - it isn't Red Hat! - but what's it for exactly?

Maybe we can provided an answer, and although it's terribly unfashionable right now, it deserves airing, It's the commitment to a channel model.

In this disintermediated, outsourced world there's nothing more outre than building a human chain of accountability and expertise between the users and the vendors, but Caldera holds the faith, as SCO did before it. We hope it succeeds. This reporter's recent experience with MCI and UMAX (and no one was more surprised than us to discover that UMAX's US operation effectively amounts to a man who can't speak English hiding in a cupboard in Dallas) suggests that rationalizing has its limits.

Building a channel is risky and expensive, and it’s the first candidate for the axe when financial analysts run their fingers over the equation. (Today's accelerated capitalism abhors this kind of investment).

But it's an honorable goal, and a key differentiator for UnitedLinux. The stakes are pretty high: if it fails, it leaves one major distro scrapping for business, with closed source rivals, and a whole lot of useful stuff on the fringe. Back to square one, in other words. ®

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