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Oracle’s entry into the Linux business – an open-source software system – could have a divisive and damaging effect on the market for this fast-growing product, a senior IBM software executive has warned.

The comments from Kristof Kloeckner, chief technology officer and head of strategy in IBM’s software division, echo criticisms in recent days from some other open-source supporters, who have claimed that Oracle’s move could undermine one of the software industry’s biggest success stories.

Oracle sent a shockwave through the open-source world last week with the announcement that it would distribute and offer support for a version of Linux that is copied directly from the one sold by Red Hat, the leading company in the field.

Since open-source software is covered by licences that make it freely available, Oracle said it believed it was legally entitled to copy the Red Hat code, as long as it stripped out that company’s trademarks.

IBM itself did much to promote the early use of Linux and helped to give Red Hat its lead in the business. The computer maker stood aside last week as other big technology companies lined up to support Oracle’s move, and Mr Kloeckner’s comments point to a potential struggle between the two technology groups over the future direction of Linux.

“If they’re creating a major bifurcation of Linux, it would be a very slippery slope,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. “That is certainly something we would have to watch very carefully.”

Oracle’s move would threaten Linux if other software makers, along with the companies which use their products, feel they have to test them exhaustively first on the new Oracle Linux, said Mr Kloeckner. That would greatly add to their costs and effectively fragment the Linux business by creating different versions of the product.

Software veterans fear that a fragmented Linux could face the same fate as the Unix operating system, on which it is closely based. Big computer makers like IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun all released their own versions of Unix, removing the benefit that would have come from a single standardised product – and leaving the field open for Microsoft’s Windows. IBM’s early support of Linux reflected its desire to limit the spread of Windows on to servers and into corporate datacentres.

Oracle executives denied last week that their version of the operating system would amount to a fragmentation of Linux.

As a direct copy of the Red Hat software, though with extra “bug fixes” added by Oracle to improve the product, it would work with other software products in exactly the same way that Red Hat’s software does, they said.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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