Volunteer project could oblige Microsoft to work with Linux

Date 27-Jan-2003 9:04:14
Topic: Miscellaneous News

A lot of people are watching Miguel de Icaza, a bubbly young Mexican programming whiz behind an unusual project he named "Mono,'' Spanish for monkey.

Icaza's company, Ximian, has already produced software called Evolution that gives users of the free, open-source Linux operating system e-mail and calendar tools comparable to those that run on Microsoft's Windows operating system.

But Icaza's latest extracurricular work could have a greater impact. With the Mono project, he and about 130 other volunteer programmers are trying to break down the walls between Linux and Microsoft's new ``.NET.'' software development platform.

"I don't think it's ever going to wipe out Microsoft,'' he said in a recent interview. ``But it's going to be a fairer universe.''

If successful, Mono will allow .NET programmers to write software not just for Windows computers and gadgets but also for those running Linux and other variants of the Unix operating system.

It also will simplify the process, allowing developers to use multiple programming languages to write applications that work in many different software environments.

Mono's impact will ultimately depend on who ends up controlling it. Microsoft could adopt Mono as a kind of super standard of its own. Or Mono could end up in the hands of a rival like IBM that could use it to undermine Microsoft's power.

"If it does work, certainly it would transform the dynamic,'' said Rob Enderle, a research fellow at Giga Information Group. "It becomes a de facto standard, potentially more powerful than .NET. But without a major backer like Microsoft, it could have a hard time reaching that potential.''

Why is the Linux-.Net bridge so important?

Microsoft hopes to make .NET (pronounced dot Net) the lingua franca of the next generation of computer programs, helping information flow seamlessly from servers to desktop and wireless devices of all kinds.

But in an acknowledgment that Windows is unlikely to obliterate Linux -- especially on new handheld devices and appliances where Linux is gaining traction -- Microsoft appears to have decided that customers will demand that .NET communicate with Linux.

That could be a big breakthrough for Linux, whose supporters must persuade skeptics that adopting Linux won't isolate their technologies from Microsoft's universe.

While there have been a number of high-profile ``defections'' to Linux, whose basic code is free, many have held back for fear they're backing the wrong horse. Forrester Research has reported that just 10 percent of 3,500 top companies have implemented Linux for any tasks at all.

"In their mind, .NET is unstoppable,'' Enderle said. "Betting against .NET, particularly if you're a large business, looks like a fool's bet.''

Mono, however, could change that equation. It already appears to be factoring into the decisions of sophisticated users.

"(Mono) is of great interest to us,'' said Colin Hope-Murray, the chief technology officer of the global infrastructure organization at Unilever, which announced its switch at last week's LinuxWorld conference.

Linux backers also have been heartened by an explosion in Linux software.

Most notable are programs like Ximian's Evolution and its Red Carpet software administration products, which have been downloaded an estimated 1.5 million times.

Also generating excitement is Linux distributor SuSE's newly introduced desktop suite that lets users run Microsoft Office without Windows.

Icaza is a pathfinder in the world of bringing Linux to the desktop.

He was working as a computer lab technician at the National University in Mexico City when Ximian was founded in 1999. It was in that year that Massachusetts Institute of Technology awarded him ``innovator of the year.'' He moved to the United States in 2000, where he's been a prominent open-source supporter.

In his office, Icaza lunges for a pen and starts sketching diagrams on the wall, which doubles as a dry-erase board, to illustrate Mono's progress so far.

"We've been 18 months on this thing, and we've built an amazing amount of tools,'' he said.

Still, many, including Icaza, caution against over-hype, in part because .NET is not yet the dominant force Microsoft hopes it will become.

"Right now the attitude in the Linux community is kind of a 'hmmm, that's interesting, show me more,'' said Don Marti, editor in chief of Linux Journal.

Part of the skepticism comes from fear Microsoft will co-opt the technology. Icaza acknowledges some think he's sold out.

But he denies Microsoft is funding the project, and says there is no "official'' relationship.

Microsoft's "help'' has been limited to posting some code to a standards board and an occasional response from a Microsoft engineer on Internet message boards.

Microsoft declined to make a spokesman available but issued a statement saying it supports open standards.

Icaza's real motivations, he insists, are selfish. Mono would be great for Ximian, and he's got 130 volunteers doing work his company couldn't do on its own.

Because its software is free and Ximian's revenues come from services and support, the company doesn't have much money for development.

This article comes from AmigaWorld - Amiga Community Portal

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