The future of several technologies from the Open Group, which are vital to the future of commercial and open Unix, are in jeopardy, as the standards body reaches crisis point.
The group this week announced that it will lay off all but a handful of staff and will tout its technologies around the market, a process that started last year. Many observers believe the body is, in effect, shutting up shop.
The threatened technologies include the X Window System, Motif (the graphical user interface used by more than 200 platforms, especially in Unix), Common Desktop Environment, and CTL (Complex Text Layout for certain non-Latin alphabets).
Around a quarter of the Open Group's staff, mostly those based developing these technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have been laid off. Of the remaining 190 or so staff, 70 who work in the Open Group Research Institute will either be transferred to a new owner of the Institute, or it will be closed.
The suspicion is that Joseph de Feo, the former Barclays Bank IT director who heads up the Open Group, wants the organisation to stop developing technologies, and play a more political role.
The Open Group is a not-for-profit membership body that resulted from the 1996 merger of two Unix standards outfits, the Cambridge, Massachusetts based Open Software Foundation (OSF), and the Reading, UK based X/Open Consortium. The differing cultures have not mixed well, the Open Group admits.
But it is not being very open about what is happening now, and there is much concern among the remaining staff - and the few users who have heard about the problems so far. Staff and members are bound by non-disclosure agreements, so great secrecy surrounds the present crisis. Insiders contacted by 'VNU Newswire' were only prepared to speak on condition of anonymity.
A source who used to work at the Open Group said that the past two years had been "a financial rollercoaster" with "tight control of expenses", but "OSF revenue had been a cash cow". Staff cutbacks have not been made in revenue generating activities at present, according to the source.
Most of these activities were inherited from the OSF, which was founded in 1988 under the National Cooperative Research Act, which allowed competitors to collaborate in R&D in order to compete internationally. It developed a Unix variant, OSF/1, which was backed by IBM, Hewlett Packard and Digital Equipment, and is best known for its Mach kernel.
The OSF also developed middleware called Distributed Computing Environment (DCE), but this is considered to lack some key elements, to be hard to use, and even harder to sell. HOwever, work on DCE2.0 is still continuing, a source confirmed.
More successfully, the OSF also produced the Motif GUI.
The history of its merger partner, the X/Open Consortium, was played out further from the publicity spotlights. But X/Open was a standards body noted for its security, communications and applications portability standards. Novell, which had acquired AT&T's Unix System V technologies, then handed over control of the Unix trademark to X/Open, leading to the single Unix specification that started as Spec 1170, and subsequently became Unix 95 and Unix 98.
Testing the conformance of new products against specially developed test suites is an important X/Open role that will continue in the shaved down Open Group, sources say.
The Open Group also purchased the X Consortium, developer of the X Windows system used by Unix, and is now selling the technology, which was created largely by voluntary effort. This has not proved popular, and there is concern over the future of X Windows if it cannot make profits.
De Feo, who was on the Open Group selection committee looking for a new CEO, was persuaded to take on the job in November 1996. He said at the time that he wanted develop Open Group branding, to persuade Microsoft to align its technology and business goals with those of the Group, to lead the debate on the Internet, network computing and electronic commerce standards, and to make the body commercially rather than technically driven.
He then started to try to put this impossible dream into action, and on present progress, must be deemed to have failed so far.
De Feo said last year that the Open Group was "in full discussion" with other standards groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium and Internet Engineering Taskforce. "We're looking to put together core, practical specifications based totally on business needs. These specifications will pull together de facto standards as well as vendor developments. We will be utterly and completely focused on a defined collection of technologies and standards based on our members' business requirements," he said then.
He wants the Open Group to be user rather than supplier driven, which may not appeal to its board, entirely made up of vendors - Digital, Fujitsu, HP, Hitachi, IBM, NCR, Novell, Siemens Nixdorf, and Sun - which pay a minimum annual subscription of $1 million each.
De Feo's claim to fame at the Open Group is as the inventor of the IT Dialtone concept - computers and online information as ubiquitous and accessible as the telephone. But he has not been particularly active in developing this, some observers believe. Several of the insiders that spoke to 'VNU Newswire' considered the Dialtone to be a near-incomprehensible vision, shrouded in secrecy.
The Open Group says that the object of Dialtone is "to make IT infrastructure as trusted and easy to use as the telephone", suggesting that as "the Internet is currently an ill disciplined environment", the Dialtone "will produce a basic set of services that the Internet requires to function as a secure and reliable infrastructure."
At the same time, Dialtone was "an attempt to focus activities, to provide a yardstick for relevance, and a framework against which activities in the Open Group could be assessed", a source claimed.
It was also intended to be an organisational tool for OSF members, and to present a more cohesive view to vendors of what users were demanding. But a source said that this did not go down well with vendors. "They had marketing departments, and said they knew what their customers wanted. Consequently, it was hard to convince them to join in the projects."
Furthermore, "on the technical side, it was more questionable", the insider continued. "On the implementation side, it was trying to give the impression that the Open Group was in charge of resources, and this was where it ran into trouble", exacerbated by the fact that Dialtone was "launched in the middle of a crisis".
Last month, the Open Group said that Unix 98 with a network computer client and Internet server was the first deployment of the IT Dialtone Architecture - a rather grand name for a tacked-on client and server.
De Feo said last year that the IT Dialtone was "a metaphor to express the level of quality required in the building of an infrastructure". It is also being described as a mission, and is spoken about quasi-religiously. With Dialtone being claimed, on different occasions, to be a set of services, an architecture, a yardstick, a framework, and a metaphor, it resembles a universal elixir in the best tradition of the medicine men.
Last month, De Feo approved an internal memorandum to staff, which 'VNU Newswire' has seen, saying that "The Open Group continues to go from strength to strength as its IT Dialtone mission has increased business focus and market relevance. The company's mission has changed and it has to evolve its own structure and processes to match this ... It is no surprise that the ways of delivering ... services, including a research and development function, are being reviewed."
The number of Open Group members - most of whom pay $25,000 a year - is something of a mystery. De Feo was reported as claiming 300 in March, while Simon Lofthouse, an Open Group spokesman, told 'Newswire' there were around 200. The membership list on the Web site lists around 120, made up mostly of public or member-funded bodies, followed by private sector users and vendors, and a sprinkling of consultants. Lofthouse said the list was not up to date.
Lofthouse also said that the Dialtone has been "an instrumental factor in restructuring the Open Group". This begs the question as to whether De Feo is using the incomprehensibility of the Dialtone strategy as a means to change his organisation into a different kind of power base, with least opposition.
Many users and vendors will be affected by any changes in Open Group technology development, so it must disclose frankly and fully its true intentions, if it is to have any future credibility.
De Feo believes the Internet is an unmanaged, anarchic mess, and wants to realise the potential of the Open Group, seemingly by morphing it into a power base for his dream of gaining control of the Internet.
Last September, he noted at the Open Group's Boston conference that the Internet and Web were examples of "the most successful implementation of an open system that has ever been developed". But both came about despite the Open Group and its forbears. Open Group members did not pioneer the development of the Internet, and if its new direction is to attempt to take over its management, it it is unlikely to succeed because the anarchists - mainly from a free Unix background - won, before the establishment realised what was happening.
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