Linux Looks Good to Retail

 Once the exclusive province of Internet infrastructure geeks and open-source devotees, Linux is starting to look attractive to retailers.

“I think you’ll see more and more retailers wake up to Linux,” says Mike Prince, vice president and CIO of Burlington Coat Factory, based in Burlington, NJ. Burlington made the jump to Linux last year, installing its first Linux boxes at retail locations and warehouses starting in April 1999. The company has deployed Linux as its exclusive client operating system on desktop PCs throughout its 261 stores, and is exploring the use of Linux on point-of-sale systems.

So far, the computers have more than met expectations for reliability, scalability, and ease of maintenance. “The only time we ever have any problems with one of these boxes is when somebody physically damages them,” Prince says.

Prince is one of a small but growing number of retail executives attracted by the special attributes of the open-source operating system. These include the fact that it can be easily modified for specific applications, is well-suited to remote management, can be easily supported because of its Unix heritage, and costs little or nothing.

One Linux vendor that has jumped into the retail market is Neoware Systems Inc., a maker of Linux-based thin client appliances. “Retail is our single biggest market,” says Neoware president and CEO Michael Kantrowitz. “Our research indicates that retail is going to be one of the largest commercial users of Linux.”

Other vendors are also optimistic, if somewhat more guarded in their projections. Jerry Rightmer, CTO of 360Commerce, a developer of Java-based retail applications, sees Linux as promising. “It seems to be a reliable operating system, it’s robust, and it does have a few miles under its belt, although not in a retail setting,” says Rightmer. 360Commerce developed the gift-registry system in use at Burlington Coat Factory, and was able to deploy it to Burlington’s Linux systems with very little extra effort, according to Rightmer.

“What we’re seeing is some installations more on the server—the print server, the mail server,” says Pablo Reiter, president and CEO of Csoft International. “I believe that the end of this year or early next, we’ll see Linux at point of sale, in handhelds, and in kiosks.”

Easy to Work With

The open-source nature of Linux has strong appeal for the retail industry, where many applications are developed in-house to suit specific needs. When using Linux, in-house developers have the ability to modify the underlying OS, tuning it to match the needs of a single application.

Says IBM’s Dave Turek, vice president of deep computing and Web servers: “If you married a single application to Linux, you could get that application to work very well, and in some cases to work better than you could on a general purpose operating system,” says Turek.

One potential shortcoming—the lack of Linux device drivers for retail-specific peripherals—is slowly being addressed by device vendors and

others. 360Commerce recently announced a partnership with IT service provider Wincor Nixdorf to jointly develop and test Linux-based thin client point-of-sale products, including Linux drivers for retail devices such as bar-code scanners, electronic and point-of-sale printers.

Another big advantage of Linux is remote management, says Neoware’s Kantrowitz. Retail chains with dozens or hundreds of stores typically have no IT personnel on site at most locations. Thin-client systems managed from a central office are an attractive alternative to Windows PCs.

And a key benefit for retail is preservation of legacy hardware, says Csoft’s Reiter. He explains that older POS devices running a DOS system on 486 chips, for example, can be re-configured with Linux to operate with multi-tasking and browsers. While Linux is derived from Unix, most versions of Unix “cannot be brought down to such a small footprint. Linux runs in 16 megs of memory,” Reiter comments.

Different Paths

One approach is to use thin clients that simulate a desktop PC environment. Department store chain Neiman Marcus installed Neoware client systems in its retail locations for store managers. These terminals access native Windows applications running on Citrix servers in Neiman Marcus’ Dallas headquarters.

Another option is to install Linux-native PCs in retail locations, as Burlington Coat Factory did. Prince acknowledges that Linux office applications don’t boast the full breadth of features available in the industry-standard Microsoft Office suite, but says that the Linux productivity tools are sufficient for most store managers’ needs. “What’s out there is perfectly adequate for a retail store manager who has to do simple spreadsheets and relatively simple composition of messages,” says Prince.

Linux’s Unix roots and the increasing availability of support options for the OS are also positive features for retailers. “Unix has been very strong in the retail marketplace,” says Prince. “Most retailers have a fair amount of Unix skills in house, so Linux becomes very easy to do.” In Burlington’s case, the transition to Linux was relatively painless, given the company’s years of experience with Sun SPARC systems in the retail locations and IBM Numa-Q servers on the back end.

Prince says, Burlington had many options, ranging from vendors Neoware and 360Commerce to Red Hat, which distributed the Linux Burlington is using. But as it turns out, Burlington’s technicians have been able to get most of their Linux questions resolved for free, using Internet newsgroups.

Ah yes: Free. The low cost of Linux is certainly another big point in its favor for margin-sensitive retailers. “Free is good in a retail environment, when you’ve got hundreds of locations,” says Prince. Kantrowitz agrees: “Let’s face it, retailers face big cost constraints.”

Reiter says cost is the primary factor for retailers, but maintenance cost and overall cost of ownership rather than initial cost. “With thousands of distributed machines, competing platforms have proven pretty unwieldy in terms of support,” he says.

Slow Progress

So will Linux will be taking retail establishments by storm this year? According to GartnerGroup research director Carol Ferrara, most retailers are taking a wait-and-see attitude—for now. “I talk to a lot of retailers … and while sometimes Linux is mentioned, it’s always kind of on the back burner,” says Ferrara.

Over the next couple of years, however, that will change. “We’re going to see good adoption rates of Linux in retail over the next one to two years, especially as a platform for Java applications,” says Ferrara. She predicts that specialty retailers will lead the Linux charge, followed later by higher-volume supermarkets and general merchandisers.

IBM’s Turek predicts that Linux will be adopted first as a platform for special-purpose applications. Later, as Linux servers prove their scalability and robustness, Linux will increasingly be used as a platform for consolidating multiple back-office servers into smaller, more tightly-managed clusters.

“Right now I’d say we’re still in the investigative phase in the industry,” says Rightmer. Still, Rightmer believes Linux adoption will eventually increase among retailers: “It gives them some options. Retailers have been tied into proprietary solutions for so long that they now actively seek options at every turn.”

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New Domains to Rule Over

Link: New Domains to Rule Over

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Plato argued in Republic that the best form of government was a benevolent dictatorship headed by an enlightened philosopher-king. For many years, the Internet had something very much like that in the late Jon Postel.

As the director of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), Postel was the founder and sole manager of the Internet’s addressing system. Strictly speaking, he was more of a benevolent philosopher-postmaster than a king. But he probably had more influence on the Internet’s governance than did any other single person.

For decades, Postel oversaw the process of handing out blocks of IP addresses (strings of digits that uniquely identify each computer attached to the Internet, such as 209.238.59.130). The more user-friendly domain name system, which replaces numeric IP addresses with easier-to-remember domain names (such as www.tweney.com), was managed by Network Solutions.

After Postel died in late 1998, the IANA morphed into the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, created by the U.S. government. Responsibility for both IP addresses and domain names shifted to the bureaucratic body, which is just about the closest thing we have now to Internet overseer. Unfortunately, ICANN was plagued with problems from the start: bureaucratic infighting, an abortive effort to tax domain name registrations, struggles to find a legitimate source of funding, and disputes with Network Solutions. It was almost a year before ICANN accomplished anything.

Now we’re starting to see the effects of ICANN’s work. Network Solutions’s monopoly on domain-name registration has been replaced with a competitive system in which many registrars, such as Register.com, eNom.com, and Dotster.com, compete to sell you domain names. And just last week, ICANN decided to mix things up even more by creating a few new top-level domains (the suffixes attached to every domain name, such as .com and .net). By 2001, you should start seeing Web addresses with endings such as .shop, .union, .sucks, or .sex.

Trouble is, .com domain names are — and probably will continue to be — the most coveted Web addresses. It’s also unclear whether trademarks give companies the right to own any and all related domain names (remember the legal battle between eToys and Etoy.com?). ICANN’s new top-level domains won’t change that.

Will the new domain names open up new territories for virtual homesteaders? Don’t bet on it. Big companies will simply triple their domain-name expenditures (a trivial line item in any big corporation’s budget) and snap up even more domains. Soon you may be able to get to Ford Motor Company at Ford.com, Ford.shop — and probably even Ford.union.

Here’s the bigger question: How much will domain names matter in the near future? Sure, it’s easier to fit a catchy, short domain name on a business card or a television commercial. But long domain names are just as easy to click on as short ones. Over the long haul, as devices wired for the Internet proliferate, we’ll be doing a lot less typing of domain names and a lot more clicking — or even just asking the computer to connect us to Ford or Avis or wherever. And the Internet domain debate will become a moot argument.

Kinda makes you long for a benevolent philosopher to step in and straighten things out, doesn’t it?

Footnote

ICANN now has an “at-large membership” that will be able to vote on some ICANN issues. Anyone in the world who is over 16 and has an e-mail address and a postal address can sign up to be an at-large member onICANN’s site.

New Domains to Rule Over

Cash for code

Cash for Code

Programmers jump on the money train.

07/25/2000

Steve Elfanbaum wants to help his fellow code geeks make some extra cash.
Photo: Stephen Kennedy

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Let’s not foster any illusions about open source software: If you’re a programmer, it’s not going to make you rich.

Even as open source makes marketing geniuses and service providers rich, as Linux has done through the initial public offerings of Red Hat, VA Linux Systems, and Andover.Net, the coders who actually built the product don’t generally participate in the upside. Like monks, college professors, and WNBA teams, open-source programmers get their most significant compensation in nobler, less bankable currencies–self-fulfillment, peer recognition, or experience.

Steve Elfanbaum, the chairman and co-founder of St. Louis, Mo.—based Asynchrony.com, wants to change all that.

Asynchrony is building a community of independent software developers who use the company’s Website to form ad-hoc teams, undertake development projects, and eventually, if time and luck allow, produce marketable software. Once a project is complete, Asynchrony will take over the responsibility of testing, packaging, and marketing it, in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds (between 10 and 30 percent). The remainder of the revenue will be distributed to the project’s developers, who will share in the wealth according to their relative contributions.

With Asynchrony, Elfanbaum wants to adopt many of the aspects of open-source approach to software development–distributed teams, attention to detail, high standards of excellence and personal responsibility–while making it possible for programmers to benefit materially from their efforts.

“It’s really taking what we think of as the best parts of the open-source model, such as collaboration all over the world, while at the same time providing the infrastructure to allow the people who contribute to actually benefit,” Elfanbaum says.

Elfanbaum started the company in 1998 with his brothers Bob (president) and Dave (executive vice president of marketing and business development), along with CTO Nate McKie. The company has raised $1 million from angel investors and currently has seven full-time employees. Its site went live in late March.

Programmers can just program

For J. Brandon George, an independent programmer and network engineer living in Gadsden, Ala., the Asynchrony system has given him access to a range of programmers and development projects. George is involved in three Asynchrony projects: a remote-control application for the Palm OS that uses the Palm’s infrared port; a Linux-based Java operating system for the Palm; and a Web-based scheduling application for concert halls, stadiums, and other performance venues.

Most importantly for George, the site lets him concentrate on development. “Asynchrony takes only 10 percent, does all the marketing, and programmers can just program,” George says.

The inspiration for Asynchrony hit Elfanbaum after reading a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “The Dawn of the E-Lance Economy,” by Thomas W. Malone and Robert J. Laubacher. The authors argued that business will increasingly be conducted by fluid networks of electronically connected freelancers, or “e-lancers,” coming together as needed to accomplish specific tasks.

Elfanbaum, a former programmer and software project manager for GE Capital, saw parallels in his job. Software projects were often slowed or stopped by the team’s inability to find people with the right skills in the St. Louis area. “On the Internet, there’s the opportunity to tap the resources of the world,” Elfanbaum says–but how to find those resources?

One function of Asynchrony, accordingly, is as a place for freelance developers to meet–a marketplace of skills. The community includes more than 2,100 members, not just coders but also technical writers, testers, managers, and others. Members live in the United States as well as a dozen foreign countries.

Tom Robinson is an 18-year-old programmer, just out of high school, who lives in Castle Rock, Colo., about 30 miles south of Denver. He started programming at age five or six, and has taught himself a host of programming languages: Pascal, Cobol, Fortran, C, C++, and others.

Robinson is using Asynchrony to produce a book, tentatively titled The Programming Bible, whose ambitious aim is to provide advice, tips, and tricks for programmers in a wide assortment of languages, one language per chapter. Robinson is writing some chapters himself in addition to managing the overall project, but Asynchrony has enabled him to add experts in several other languages to the roster of authors.

“The fact that I can get on there and post a job for an assembler programmer, and then the guy who’s going to be writing the assembler chapter for us has experience and a master’s degree in computer science–that’s a great thing,” says Robinson.

Splitting shares

Team members working on Asynchrony projects agree on their responsibilities and negotiate how many shares in the project each will receive in exchange for his or her contribution. Team members can, in turn, assign all or part of their responsibility to subcontractors. The project manager is responsible for managing the entire process, contracting out subsets of the project, and ensuring communication among participants.

Throughout the project, participants use email, phone calls, or Asynchrony’s secure bulletin boards to communicate and share code.

Beta testing also is conducted through Asynchrony. Every project undergoes a pre-release testing phase, during which any Asynchrony member who discovers a bug will be rewarded with shares in the project. “If you find a problem, you could potentially make money, so that’s a huge motivator for you to find problems with the software,” Elfanbaum says.

Asynchrony then distributes completed software as shareware, releases it as Asynchrony-certified commercial software, or licenses it to third-party software publishers, depending on the project team’s preference. Asynchrony also supports development of open source software on its site.

In the case of commercial or shareware products, Asynchrony itself owns the intellectual property rights. Elfanbaum insists that this is merely a legal precaution so unscrupulous team members can’t appropriate the code for themselves. “We’re not trying to hoard the code or hoard the rights; it’s just to protect our members,” Elfanbaum asserts.

The first Asynchrony projects are expected to be complete in late summer. If all goes well, Asynchrony-branded software could be on the market this fall–and lucky developers may see their first royalty checks soon after.

“Most software developers have things they’ve been working on in the basement for years anyway, so if they can find a way to work for love and money, we think that’s a great thing,” Elfanbaum says.

For Robinson, the potential monetary upside is only one of the attractions. “If by chance I do happen to make a couple bucks off of this project, that’s great,” he says. “But if nothing else, it’s been a great chance for me to get some leadership skills, and for my team to have some great development experience.”

Considering the paucity of programming jobs for recent high school graduates in Castle Rock, that’s no small thing.

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Dylan Tweney is a writer and content developer in San Mateo, Calif.

Link: Cash for code

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Cash for code