UnitedLinux began with much energy and promise in May 2002, as four Linux vendors joined to create a standardised, certified and robust enterprise-focused version of the open-source operating system.

But things haven't exactly turned out as planned.

The first version of UnitedLinux debuted that November, but the group's Web site hasn't been updated since April 2003. Meanwhile, its four original partners -- SUSE Linux, the former Caldera International (now known as The SCO Group), Turbolinux and Conectiva -- have undergone a number of changes.

SCO threw the partnership into a tailspin when it filed its now-infamous lawsuit against IBM in March 2003, alleging that IBM illegally contributed some of SCO's System V Unix code to Linux. Then Tokyo-based Turbolinux underwent ownership changes and largely pulled out of the market, causing more instability for UnitedLinux. And late last year, Novell bought SuSE, bringing the Linux company under its wing as part of its future strategy.

Despite those changes, UnitedLinux, which is built atop SuSE Enterprise Linux, is still being sold by all of the partners except for SCO, which ended Linux sales after filing its IBM lawsuit. SCO went on to file other lawsuits against Novell, DaimlerChrysler, AutoZone and others relating to its infringement claims. The bulk of the DaimlerChrysler suit was dismissed last month.

So where does this leave UnitedLinux? It depends on whom you ask.

Mission accomplished
Jaques Rosenzvaig, CEO of Conectiva, said the original goal of the partnership, to create a standardised enterprise operating system, was achieved. But future work on UnitedLinux may go in new directions. "The object was to make a product, not an entity," he said. "UnitedLinux was kind of like a vehicle to make this global, certified, unified Linux happen."

UnitedLinux still exists as an entity, he said, despite the SCO lawsuits and SuSE's acquisition. "Many lessons were learned and these will form a basis for us moving forward," he said, noting that sales of UnitedLinux continue, as does support and service.

Michael Jennings, director of international business at Turbolinux, said the SCO lawsuits slowed the group's initial push into the marketplace but added that the other three partners are unable to kick SCO out of UnitedLinux. "The industry really liked the idea of UnitedLinux, and things were really starting to take off when unfortunate stuff started to happen," he said. "And so now we're just trying to take a wait-and-see approach. You'll see things starting to occur again come later this year. Where it's going exactly, we're just not sure.

"For all intents and purposes, UnitedLinux is still functioning. It is still a company, and it is still supporting all of its customers using it right now," Jennings said. "There are hundreds of people using the product," and patches and updates are still scheduled to be provided through 2007.

SCO's View
SCO spokesman Blake Stowell, however, had a different view: As far as SCO is concerned, UnitedLinux has been officially disbanded.

The SCO lawsuits, Novell's acquisition of SUSE and changes in ownership at Turbolinux all had effects, Stowell said. "There were a lot of things that led to its demise," he said, calling Novell's purchase of SUSE "pretty much the last nail in the coffin for UnitedLinux."

Former UnitedLinux general manager Paula Hunter, now business development director for Open Source Development Labs in Beaverton, Ore., discounted SCO's view, saying UnitedLinux hasn't been disbanded. "All of the parties are free to continue to sell, market, support and service products powered by UnitedLinux," Hunter said. "What hasn't happened in recent months are any public activities with regard to any future development of UnitedLinux beyond [Version] 1.0."

The effort was successful, however, on several fronts, she said. "What it did, particularly for Conectiva and Turbolinux, was get them engaged more closely with some of the top independent software vendors like Oracle," she said. "It gave all of the participants access and a level of certification with those global partners which would have been very challenging had they tried to do that on their own."

Meanwhile, Richard Seibt, the former CEO of SUSE who is now president of Novell's Europe, Middle East and Asia group, said that while SUSE continues to support its UnitedLinux customers, the company is no longer active in the partnership. The SCO lawsuit against IBM, a partner vendor of UnitedLinux, was a key reason for dropping its participation, he said.

Novell talked with Conectiva and Turbolinux about continuing without SCO, but those negotiations weren't successful, Seibt said. "At the end of the day, we took our own road. We would love for Conectiva and Turbolinux to support our next version [of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9]," but there are no agreements in place to do that.

Today, corporate users can choose from two major players in the enterprise Linux marketplace -- either SuSE or Red Hat -- which is what they prefer, Seibt said. Customers and vendors want to deal with no more than two Linux distributions to cut down on support and certification costs, he said. "And they don't want just one because they end up with a monopoly again," he said.

No longer the loyal opposition
Several analysts said UnitedLinux never met all of its goals.

"I would say it failed," said Stacey Quandt, of Quandt Analytics. The idea was that the four partners could join and cut development costs, creating the operating system from the technical foundation of SuSE Enterprise Linux. But for users, Quandt said, a better tack would have been to start with code from the Linux Standard Base project, which is developing a set of standards to increase compatibility among Linux distributions and enable software applications to run on any compliant system.

IDC's Dan Kusnetzky said UnitedLinux also originally had a mission of creating a "loyal opposition" as an alternative to products from Linux market leader Red Hat. But that changed when Novell bought SuSE and "decided to take the loyal opposition position all to itself," Kusnetzky said.

The original partners appear to be backing away from some of their original objectives, he said. When UnitedLinux was first unveiled, he said, the idea was "this was going to be a long-term commitment for everyone, not just a single [Version 1.0]. The conditions that brought that community together have gone on to take them in different directions."