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Linux Offers A Lesson

The growth of Linux is a sign that technology buyers want low-cost, open systems. RFID vendors need to get the message.
Aug 19, 2002Aug. 19, 2002 - A small item in the business section of Monday's New York Times said Sun Microsystems plans to introduce a server that will feature an Intel processor and the Linux operating system. This caught my attention because it confirms one of my core beliefs about technology in general and RFID in particular. Vendors like Sun want to sell high-margin proprietary technology. But the world has changed. For most applications, customers want low-cost systems based on open standards. We are moving inexorably in that direction.

Let me explain. For those of you lucky enough not to have served time in the nether-regions of information technology, Linux is a variation of the Unix operating system that was created by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish programmer. Torvalds was an early leader of the open source movement, and he made his software available to anyone who wanted to use it.

For several years, Linux was not considered a serious option for corporate IT departments. Back in the days when I was managing editor at InformationWeek, we ran surveys that routinely showed that less than 5 percent of IT shops were using Linux at all, and most IT managers said they would never consider it for mission-critical applications. The price was right – free – but Linux came with no support. And besides, a lot of clever sales people had sold CIOs on all the bells and whistles of Unix operating systems developed by IBM, Hewlett Packard, and most of all, Sun.

Sun Solaris is considered the most stable, high-performance operating system for servers. It runs on Sun's own RISC microprocessor, and thousands of Web sites willingly pay more for Sun servers because they are so darn reliable. But a funny thing happened a couple of years ago. A few companies like Red Hat and VA Linux figured they could make money by servicing Linux systems.

When IBM saw that customers wanted to use Linux, it began offering them machines with Linux preinstalled and it supported the operating system. To me, this sums up how Lou Gerstner saved IBM. When he took over, IBM told customers what they wanted and everything it sold them was designed and built by IBM.

Gerstner sensed the world had changed and made IBM responsive to customers. If he had to give them a free operating system and support it to sell hardware, by god he was going to do it. If he hadn't changed the culture at IBM, the company would probably have gone the way of Wang. And now Sun, the king of proprietary hardware and software has gotten the message.

Companies understand now that technology doesn't provide a sustainable competitive advantage. It provides a means for doing business, and the more cheaply and efficiently it does that, the better. Clearly, companies want a low-cost RFID system based on open standards. My guess is the first company that can produce such technology is going to do incredibly well.

I've been accused of slavish support for the Auto-ID Center. What the critics don't understand is that I support what the center represents. I don't know if the low-cost system that's adopted will be the one proposed by the Auto-ID Center, or something dreamed up by a schemer like Torvalds. But I do know that sooner or later, we are going to get there. Customers always get what they want in the end. That is the lesson Linux offers.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article or submit your own, send e-mail to mroberti@rfidjournal.com.
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