The diminishing of the operating system

Do Mandriva's current troubles mark the end of standalone Linux sales?

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Mandriva S.A., the company behind the Mandriva Linux distribution, has been given a temporary reprieve from fiscal collapse, following a shareholder skirmish that has left the ultimate fate of the Linux vendor still in doubt.

COO Jean-Manuel Croset made a brief statement in a blog post yesterday indicating that even though the funds from the minority stakeholders from Russia had not been received, Mandriva had found financial assistance from the Paris Region Economic Development agency that would carry the company through until mid-February.

This will not make me popular, but I seriously think it's time for Mandriva to start to wrap up it’s affairs and close up shop.

The reason is pretty straightforward: given the current situation the company is in--not knowing whether it will be financially viable after two weeks--is it realistic to expect any customer to want to sign up with Mandriva as a customer? I don't like that this seems to be the ultimate solution, but I have seen too many companies hit this downward spiral and not recover.

Of course, it is not impossible for Mandriva to pull out of this spiral, just unlikely. A new infusion of cash could set the Linux vendor on a new course, and I would happily be wrong in my speculations.

But there is a broader problem here for Mandriva, one that highlights what it takes to succeed in the world of commercial Linux distributions: the big idea.

More and more, Linux vendors aren't just selling Linux... They’re selling Linux as a vehicle for their big idea. For Red Hat, it's virtualization and the cloud. For SUSE, it's the appliance creation of SUSE Studio. For Canonical, it's a push towards mobile, cloud, television... their big idea seem to be moving Ubuntu into every platform they can think of.

But regardless of whether you think these ideas are good ones, it does not change the fact that the Linux vendors exhibiting some success are pairing the Linux operating system with some sort of larger product/concept that they market to their customers.

Mandriva's extras are there: they have Pulse, a network management system, and their own Mandriva Directory Server for identity management. But network management is a very competitive market these days, and so is ID management. Mandriva is apparently not making much headway with these offerings.

In the early days of Linux, you would just sell Linux and support for the operating system to customers and make a tidy margin. But the operating system alone, it seems, is not enough anymore.

This really is no surprise--after all, Mandriva, Red Hat, SUSE, and Canonical have had this figured out for quite a while. So if Mandriva does shuffle off this mortal coil, then it will be the final affirmation that in order to succeed, Linux vendors have to move past “just the operating system.” More importantly, they have to provide an offering that puts the operating system behind the other services provided.

This is a trend that we have been seeing for quite a while; the operating system itself seems to have taken a back seat to the services and applications that sit on top of it. For instance, webOS is a really slick platform... but without the all-important apps to woo customers, it has had trouble succeeding as a tablet offering.

Cloud computing is accelerating this diminishing of the operating system. Now, it's all about the services that are being offered, and tools like Juju and vendors like Bitrock are stepping in to fill that gap. That Linux is the operating system for these services is a given; no one hardly asks.

What does this mean for Linux moving forward? It will mean less of a focus on the operating system, which in turn could mean less resources and development. There have already been hints of this in the kernel space; grumblings that there are fewer kernel developers these days as other types of development are more attractive.

And it will mean that unless vendors like Mandriva can differentiate themselves and provide something compelling to their customers, they will likely fail.

Linux is not the solution alone anymore. It is part of the solution. If you didn't know that before, then Mandriva may very well be the canary that makes this all too clear.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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