Heat increases as rivalry intensifies

THERE is more to the debate about open standards than the UNIX operating system - but nothing that encapsulates the intense struggle between commercial rivals to establish de facto industry standards quite so well.

Five years ago, two of the industry's most powerful standards lobby groups were formed in direct competition with each other in a quest to define a single UNIX operating system: UNIX International (UI) and the Open Software Foundation (OSF).

The two organisations - the chief protagonists in the battle for UNIX dominance - have remarkably similar objectives.

But despite continued discussions about a possible merger at various times over the years, they have been unable to get past seemingly irreconcilable differences.

It is those differences that led to the formation recently of the COSE group (Common Open Software Environment).

But even with the formation of the new COSE group, it appears unlikely that OSF and UI will close shop in deference to the new group. Representatives from both organisations say they still have an important role to play.

Not too surprisingly, both organisations now sing the praises of the similarities that exist between them, rather than the vast differences.

Certainly, the latter applies in the way that they are organised.

The Open Software Foundation considers itself a research and development organisation, designing technologies to be adopted by its membership.

The group is funded by membership fees - which acted like venture capital funding during the group's start up years. It will, however, be eventually self-funding, raising its own revenue by licensing the technology it develops to its members.

UNIX International differs from OSF primarily in that it does not develop any technologies.

Rather, the group takes technologies that have already been developed by others and writes specifications for the technology for its membership to follow.

''UNIX International has two main functions,'' according to the group's Asia/Pacific managing director, Mr Colin Fulton.

''The first is to define the evolution of UNIX. That involves work groups [within UI] that define requirements, and then we come up with the reference technologies which match those requirements,'' he said.

''The second major function is to promote the use of computer systems that are based on those technologies. So, we are involved in both evolving UNIX as well as promoting UNIX.'' Both groups say they will be around for some time, despite the differences and despite the formation of COSE (whose membership comes from the ranks of both OSF and UI).

''The fact that some come OSF and some come from UI is really an irrelevancy here,'' Mr Fulton said.

''From the end-users point of view, what [they] really want is to walk up to a new UNIX system that looks and feels the same way - so that he can launch an application the same way.'' UNIX International's regional managing director, Mr Jim Curtin, agrees: ''Aligning on the desktop is a minor issue but it does bring together the two major camps - that's the UNIX System Laboratory/Sun group, and the IBM/HP group, to present a common front in the UNIX market.''